It is a dangerous assumption nowadays, but assuming the University of Utah men’s basketball program has no more COVID-19-related issues, it will open the 2020-21 season Thursday afternoon vs. the University of Washington at the Huntsman Center.
What exactly the Utes look like coming out of the gate is anyone’s best guess. For starters, the program just recently began emerging from a COVID-19 pause, but coach Larry Krystkowiak said Tuesday he expects everyone to be available Thursday.
Furthermore, Both Gach transferred home to the University of Minnesota, leaving, on paper, a hole in Utah’s backcourt. Beyond that, there are a handful of new faces, and the Utes still qualify as young with only two juniors and one senior on the roster.
The good news is, a lot of that youth played a lot last season, and the bulk of the core of last season’s 16-15 outfit returns. Both of those things lend a significant amount of optimism that, assuming a legitimate season is played this winter, Utah is capable of being a factor in the top half of the Pac-12.
“Once we get on the basketball court, I’m sure a lot of the players and the rest of the coaches are a lot like me where you’re at peace and you forget about what’s going on in the crazy world,” Krystkowiak said. “Some of those curveballs and surprises might hit you when practice is over, but I think we’re just focusing and enjoying this great game that we know can get taken away from us at any point.”
The Utes return seven of their top-eight scorers from a year ago, including All-Pac-12 junior wing Timmy Allen (17.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG), who declared for and eventually removed his name from the NBA draft. Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones started all 28 games he played in, while classmate Branden Carlson (7.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG) started in 29 of the 30 games he played in.
The Utes will succeed if:
Utah has more depth, more options, more potential than last season’s awfully-young, awfully-inexperienced core had. If all of those options and all of that depth can fill the necessary roles, the Utes have a chance to be good in what is expected to be, on paper, a strong year for the Pac-12.
The Utes won’t succeed if:
Krystkowiak rode Allen and Jones hard last season, mostly out of necessity, but if that happens again, something has gone wrong and it doesn’t bode well. Utah needs those two to be good, but more importantly, it needs everyone else to fill in around them. Allen averaging 35.6 minutes per game again is not what anyone wants.
We were bullish on this Utah team a year ago as it took some lumps vs. the Pac-12, and we remain bullish now. With the pandemic a daily threat to getting games played, the league is projected to send six, maybe seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. There is no reason Utah cannot be in the mix as the sixth or seventh team.
The last time senior guard Alfonso Plummer stepped on the floor for Utah, he hit 11 3-pointers and scored 35 points in a first-round Pac-12 Tournament loss to Oregon State. Plummer figures to play a vital role in Krystkowiak’s rotation, but as the 10th-year head coach noted late last season, Plummer’s minutes will likely be dependent upon how willing of a defender the 6-foot-1 lefty is.
One opening-night factor to pay attention to Thursday is depth. Swedish freshman combo guard Pelle Larsson figures to play an immediate role, potentially in the starting spot Gach left open. Whether or not Jones is on the floor, Larsson could also see time at the point. Jaxon Brenchley will fight for backcourt rotation minutes, as will Plummer and explosive freshman Ian Martinez, while Allen is capable of guarding multiple positions.
That includes in the paint, where Carlson is entrenched at one spot, with Mikael Jantunen and Riley Battin in play at the other. Battin played in all 31 games last season, but Jantunen began taking rotation minutes away with strong play down the stretch.
If things start to pan out and everyone stays healthy, how Krystkowiak dispenses minutes and roles will be an ongoing subplot. Last season, eight players averaged at least 15.2 minutes per game.
Seven of those players are back, plus Larsson, Martinez, redshirt freshman Brendan Wenzel, junior college transfer Jordan Kellier and redshirt sophomore Lahat Thioune all building arguments to play.
UTAH MEN’S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Thursday, vs. Washington
Tuesday, vs. Idaho State
Dec. 12, at BYU
Dec. 15, vs. Utah Valley
Dec. 18, vs. Idaho
Dec. 22, at Arizona State
Dec. 31, at UCLA
Jan. 2, at USC
Jan. 6, vs,. Oregon State
Jan. 9 or 10, vs. Oregon
Jan. 14, vs. Stanford
Jan. 16, vs. Cal
Jan. 21, at Washington State
Jan. 24, at Washington
Jan. 30, at Colorado
Feb. 4, vs. Arizona
Feb. 6, vs. Arizona State
Feb. 11, at Cal
Feb. 13, at Stanford
Feb. 18, at Oregon State
Feb. 20, at Oregon
Feb. 26, vs. UCLA
March 6, vs. Colorado
March 10-13, Pac-12 Tournament, Las Vegas