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Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak alters starting lineup in loss to Oregon, a new look that will likely stick

Pelle Larsson made his first career start vs. Oregon, sending leading scorer Alfonso Plummer to the bench

Oregon guard Chris Duarte, center, goes to the basket as Utah's Mikael Jantunen (20) and Branden Carlson (35) defend in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In the week since the University of Utah lost an ugly game at USC, Larry Krystkowiak vowed that there would be lineup changes.

The Utes’ 10th-year head coach made good on that promise Saturday night ahead of a 79-73 home loss to No. 17 Oregon, and those changes were significant.

Krystkowiak trotted out a starting lineup of Rylan Jones, Pelle Larsson, Timmy Allen, Mikael Jantunen and Riley Battin. There were three significant takeaways before the game even tipped off. One, that particular lineup is seldom-used. More specifically, only 2.7% of the time over the last five games, according to KenPom.com.

Two, Larsson’s insertion sent Utah’s leading scorer, Alfonso Plummer, to the bench. Three, 7-foot sophomore center Branden Carlson also went to the bench, with Jantunen and Battin offering more in terms of rebounding, which has been a season-long problem for Utah.

“Oregon started small, we started small, I’m not going to get into a whole lot of what we’re doing with our lineup, I’m not going to make that a point of discussion,” said Krystkowiak, who is now 2-18 in his career against longtime Ducks head coach Dana Altman. “The five guys that are out on the floor have to make some plays. Super-proud of the effort, super proud of the effort.”

Krystkowiak altering his starting lineup had everything to do with the fact he believes Jones, Larsson, Allen, Jantunen and Battin comprise his best defensive unit. Much, if not all of that is based on analytics, long a decision-making tool used by Krystkowiak. Still, the fact the lineup is seldom-used, not to mention that unit played just 3:16 together at USC and posted a collective minus-3 rating made the decision to start them together Saturday puzzling.

Ultimately, it looked like quite a smart move. That group offered intensity, cohesiveness and an energy that had been missing during Utah’s first seven games. Larsson, especially, played well during an extended opportunity as his 15 points, five rebounds and five assists came in a career-high 32 minutes.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak directs his team in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Oregon, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Krystkowiak didn’t want to dive deep into why he made the lineup change, but he also didn’t sound like he would be going backwards. Based on Saturday, that starting five should be a mortal lock to start again Monday when Colorado visits the Huntsman Center (4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Allen said after scoring 17 of his team-high 23 points in the first half. “Anybody in the starting lineup, I know they’ll be ready to go. I think we had energy from the jump, I liked where our minds were at. We made shots and we were playing really good defense.”

Assuming the starters go unchanged on Monday, Krystkowiak shifting Plummer to the bench offers great fascination.

A year ago, Plummer himself admitted that he was not a good enough defender enough of the time. His often-torrid shooting, though, demanded that he see rotation minutes, especially late in the season, capped by 11 3-pointers and 35 points in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.

As this season began, Plummer entered the starting lineup with those same offensive exploits, but with an added willingness to defend, which is what Krystkowiak wanted all along. Krystkowiak refused to label Plummer’s move to the bench Saturday night a demotion, but it is clear that Utah’s defense is ahead of its offense, and the coaching staff is going to ride that wave.

Furthermore, a backcourt with Jones and Plummer is small, if not a deficiency once you compare it to the rest of the Pac-12, so tossing in more size and versatility with the 6-foot-5 Larsson makes sense.

Jones, for what it’s worth, was terrific against Oregon in finishing with eight assists against just two turnovers.

“I think Fons can give us a great spark off the bench as our sixth man,” Krystkowiak said. “He comes in, maybe he doesn’t see the same defensive focus, he might get a few opportunities to score. This is a collective deal, and it’s about who is on the floor to do whatever it is that they do, to do their job.”

Plummer giving Utah a spark off the bench is going to be a work in progress now after he started seven games and was high on opponent scouting reports. Utah’s lone senior finished with four points on 2-for-5 shooting from the floor and 0-for-3 from 3-point range.

The four points, two field goals and five field-goal attempts are all season-lows, while Saturday marked the first time in eight games Plummer failed to hit a triple.

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