Larry Krystkowiak defends Utah basketball’s offense, while continuing to lean on analytics

Ute coach says his team is playing efficiently with the ball — they just need to start knocking down open shots

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

Some of the University of Utah men’s basketball team’s raw offensive numbers are not good.

Through seven games, the Utes (4-3) are shooting just 41.9% from the floor, which ranks them 253rd nationally and ninth in the Pac-12. They’re shooting 32.4% from 3-point range (206th nationally, ninth in the Pac-12), and scoring 69.3 points per game (235th nationally, 10th in the Pac-12).

Utah’s offense has become a topic of conversation this week after profound struggles during a 64-46 loss Saturday afternoon at USC. Against a Trojans defense that admittedly is elite, the Utes shot 27.9% from the floor, 3-for-22 from deep, and endured prolonged shooting slumps. In the second half alone, Utah hit just four field goals, while going without a field goal for stretches of 6:36, 6:44, and the final 4:32.

Before Wednesday night’s game vs. Oregon State was postponed due to the Beavers having COVID-19 issues, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak took an opportunity Monday afternoon to offer an impassioned defense of his offense. He and his coaching staff will stay the course, there will not be wholesale changes, and it is not the raw numbers that have brought Krystkowiak to this conclusion, but rather the analytics.

“We can be an elite offensive team if we make open shots and all the data tells us that efficiently and effectively, we are doing things right,” Krystkowiak said Monday on a Zoom call with reporters. “We’re not turning the ball over and we are not an elite offensive rebounding team, but we can be efficient and effective if we take care of the ball. The one thing I know our guys can do, and I’ve seen them do it, is make shots. There are some things in this game you can’t fix. I’m convinced that we’re doing a lot of things properly and I will continue to do that, earn some open looks, and then we have to knock them down.”


At the Huntsman Center

When • Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Network

To make his point on analytics, Krystkowiak at one juncture during the the media call reached across his desk for a document prepared by his program’s director of basketball strategy, David Donlevy, and began rattling off some deep-dive data.

Against USC, Utah had 15 of what Donlevy is calling “wide-open shots,” and made none of them. The Utes were down 16 points in the first seven minutes of the game, and 19 in the last seven minutes, but in between, outscored the Trojans by 17, which Krystkowiak is taking as a positive.

Krystkowiak, who paints himself as a numbers guy who bought in on analytics years ago, knows that seven games is too small a sample size to draw any big-picture observations on his team. That said, he pointed out Monday that Utah ranks 65th nationally in offensive efficiency, which is measured by how many points a team scores per 100 possessions.

Per authoritative, data-driven website KenPom.com, Utah ranks 65th nationally and eighth in the Pac-12 in offensive efficiency at 107.9 points per 100 possessions. That figure could use improvement, but, if you believe in analytics, it is an indication that Krysktowiak is correct in not panicking after the USC debacle.

Conversely, the Utes are ranked 233rd in effective field goal percentage, a statistic that adjusts for the fact that a 3-pointer is worth one more point than a 2-pointer.

As an example, if a player shoots 4-for-10 from the floor with two 3-pointers, and another player shoots 5-for-10 with zero 3-pointers, both players have scored 10 points and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage of 50%.

Offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, and the like are helping drive Krystkowiak’s decision making, but they can’t drive all of the decisions. There needs to be a balance between the analytics and simply going by what Krystkowiak and his staff are seeing on the floor.

To that end, Krystkowiak indicated Monday that lineup changes are coming, specifically to add more size. The next opportunity for Krysktowiak to see what he has isn’t until Saturday when No. 17 Oregon comes to the Huntsman Center (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“I don’t think you rely completely on numbers and I don’t think you go with the old-school gut feel,” Krystkowiak said. “I think it’s somewhere in between, and that’s kind of a happy medium we’re trying to find.”