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Analysis: New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith should have most of the roster back, but it might not be so simple

Utah had just one senior in 2021, Alfonso Plummer, but multiple players are already gone to the NCAA Transfer Portal

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) takes the ball to the basket as California Golden Bears forward Kuany Kuany (13) defends, in PAC12 Basketball action between the the Utah Utes and the California Golden Bears, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2021.

The University of Utah basketball team had just one senior on the roster last season, Alfonso Plummer, so new coach Craig Smith should walk into a ready-made roster for the 2021-22 season.

On paper, that is the situation, but these things are not done on paper. A new head coach generally leads to at least some players looking for a new home, but that situation aside, the NCAA Transfer Portal has made it easier for players to leave their current school. Furthermore, the NCAA is expected to pass one-time transfer legislation, potentially as soon as next month, which is likely to increase the number of portal entrants.

At Utah, all of these things are in play. For starters, four players have opted for the transfer portal or announced their intention to do so.

Reserve forwards Lahat Thioune and Jordan Kellier entered on March 15, the day before Larry Krystkowiak was fired, and Riley Battin joined them on Tuesday. Late Friday, Utah’s All-Pac-12 forward, Timmy Allen, also made it known that he was going to enter the portal.

It was unclear Saturday, after Smith’s hiring was announced, what those players will do now. Technically, they all still have the option to return, but the assumption is the three already in the portal may not return. If Allen has not yet technically entered the portal, there may be a chance he will be persuaded to stick around.

Allen, who declared for the NBA Draft last spring, wound up coming back for his junior season, and was clearly Utah’s best, and most important player in 2020-21. Battin was a valued rotation player (6.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 21.9 mpg, 10 starts in 25 games) who provided front court depth.

Then there is Plummer. The high-scoring guard is in line to receive an eligibility waiver if he wants it. All indications prior to Smith’s hiring pointed to his departure. Does that now change?

And who else might leave? That remains to be seen, but two players stick out as question marks, and with good reason.

Explosive freshman combo guard Ian Martinez and sophomore guard Rylan Jones each had their fathers, Henry Martinez and Chris Jones, on the previous staff. Martinez was an assistant coach, Jones was the director of basketball operations, and both were essentially let go along with Krystkowiak on March 15.

It was not a secret that Ian and Henry Martinez were a package deal, Henry’s hiring helping to facilitate Ian’s commitment as a four-star recruit out of JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. If Henry is not retained on the next staff, does Ian follow him out the door? That hypothetical is not imminent, but in this day and age, it is certainly plausible.

The Jones situation is different. Did Krystkowiak hiring Chris Jones in August 2016 help facilitate 2019 recruit Rylan Jones’ commitment later? Maybe, but Chris Jones was already a longtime assistant at Utah State. His ties to the Utes run deep, having played two seasons (1993-94) for Rick Majerus. He later served as director of ops and was a Utes assistant from 2005-08, while also serving as a video coordinator between 1995-97.

Rylan Jones grew up in Utah with his dad as a Division I assistant, he was twice named Mr. Basketball in the state of Utah as a high schooler, and was rated as a top-15 national point guard recruit. He may very well have picked Utah anyway, regardless of his dad. Whether he will stick with Utah if his dad is out is another story.

For what it’s worth, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic altered the pre-draft process, eliminating group workouts and meetings at team facilities. Whether or not those staples return in 2021 is to be determined, so if Allen were to declare again, he still may not get a normal pre-draft process.

As with everybody else mentioned, the transfer portal is at Allen’s disposal. Should that scenario play out, Allen is likely to have a slew of high-major suitors get in the mix for his services. Allen still has two years to play thanks to the NCAA freezing the eligibility due to the pandemic.

With the eligibility freeze offering extra years, Plummer has the option to return, but indications before Krystkowiak was fired were that he would not come back. Whether or not that changes with a new coach is something to monitor.

Sophomore center Branden Carlson and sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen are safe bets to return next season.

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