At the Power Six level of college basketball, how a new coaching staff builds a roster, not to mention the potential for a first-year coach to win immediately, has changed drastically over the past decade.
The University of Utah has been on one end of that spectrum, and is wading into the other end now under new head coach Craig Smith.
After Jim Boylen was fired following the 2011 season, Utah hired Larry Krystkowiak, who then had to deal with eight players transferring out of his newly acquired program.
That many players leaving yielded an absolute mountain of a task for Krystkowiak to build out his first roster. Those open scholarships ultimately went to a smattering of high school recruits, immediately eligible junior college transfers Krystkowiak likely would not have gone after otherwise, and a couple of Division I transfers in Aaron Dotson (LSU) and Glen Dean (Eastern Washington), both of whom sat out the 2011-12 season under NCAA transfer rules.
Given that level of roster volatility walking in the door, Krystkowiak’s job was widely viewed across the Pac-12, if not all of college basketball, as a major rebuild. That Utes team went 6-25 overall and 3-15 in the Pac-12, the situation not helped by starting center David Foster missing the entire season with an injury and leading scorer Josh Watkins dismissed halfway through due to multiple violations of team rules.
That was then, but things in 2021 are much different. The word “rebuild” does not, or at least should not apply to building a roster and the potential to win immediately. That has everything to do with the NCAA Transfer Portal and recent one-time transfer legislation OK’d by the NCAA.
Introduced in October 2018, the transfer portal has essentially made it easier for student-athletes across all sports to make their interest in transferring known, their names and contact information available to coaching staffs in an online database. The one-time transfer legislation allows immediate eligibility for student-athletes transferring schools for the first time. A player transferring for the second time (or more) would need an NCAA waiver to be eligible immediately.
UTAH’S OFFSEASON ROSTER MOVEMENT
As of Wednesday, Utah has three open scholarships for 2021-22
COMING: Marco Anthony (Utah State), Bostyn Holt (junior college transfer), David Jenkins Jr. (UNLV transfer), Gabe Madsen (Cincinnati transfer), Lazar Stefanovic (2021 recruit), Rollie Worster (Utah State transfer)
GOING: Timmy Allen (Texas), Mikael Jantunen (turning professional), Rylan Jones (Utah State), Jordan Kellier (Siena), Pelle Larsson (Arizona), Ian Martinez (Maryland), Alfonso Plummer (Illinois), Norbert Thelissen (Utah State)
RETURNING FROM LAST SEASON: Eli Ballstaedt (sophomore guard; walk-on), Riley Battin (junior forward), Jaxon Brenchley (sophomore guard), Branden Carlson (sophomore center), Harrison Creer (freshman guard; walk-on), Jack Jamele (freshman guard; walk-on), Lahat Thioune (redshirt sophomore center)
Through Wednesday morning, Smith has lost nine players from Krystkowiak’s final team last season, eight to the transfer portal plus sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen opting to return to Europe to begin a professional career.
Some of those defections are minor. Sophomore guard Jordan Kellier played a total of 30 minutes across seven games, while freshman wing Norbert Thelissen, a native of the Netherlands, never stepped foot on the Salt Lake City campus.
Including Jantunen, some of those nine defections are quite significant. Timmy Allen was twice an All-Pac-12 guard, Alfonso Plummer is a microwave scorer capable of taking over a game, Pelle Larsson and Ian Martinez showed great promise in the backcourt as freshmen. All four have transferred to Power Five schools, Larsson’s commitment to intra-conference rival Arizona last weekend standing as the biggest gut-punch.
In response, Smith and his staff have done what Krystkowiak and his staff did not have the option to do a decade ago, hit the transfer portal for immediate help.
Since April 2, Utah has scored four players from the portal, Cincinnati’s Gabe Madsen, UNLV’s David Jenkins Jr., and a pair of ex-Utah State players from Smith’s time in Logan, Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster. Madsen and Worster are immediately eligible as first-time transfers, while Jenkins and Anthony need waivers as they are transferring for the second time.
Bostyn Holt, a 6-foot-7 swingman from NJCAA national champion Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, committed to Smith on Tuesday afternoon, while intriguing Serbian-born 2021 shooting guard recruit Lazar Stefanovic is expected to stick with his National Letter of Intent despite the staff that recruited him is no longer there.
Taking the defections, the additions, the holdovers, and the fact Utah still has three open scholarships for 2021-22, there are depth concerns, primarily at point guard, where Larsson and Rylan Jones defecting leaves Worster as the primary option at the position. One holdover, sophomore Jaxon Brenchley, could be in play, and Holt had some point guard experience at Coffeyville, but finding at least one more option seems necessary.
Some more size and physicality in the frontcourt, a hallmark of Smith-coached teams in previous seasons, is also at the top of the list with those open scholarships. To that end, Utah is deep in the mix with 6-foot-8 outgoing Boston College forward Steffon Mitchell, a 108-game veteran of the ACC school.
Looking at the roster as presently constructed, Jenkins has put up big scoring numbers at previous stops, and Anthony was a defensive ace for Smith at Utah State. Both figure to be key rotation pieces if immediately eligible.
Madsen, a 2,300-point scorer at Mayo Senior High School, opted out of his freshman season at Cincinnati after two games, so is something of a question mark at this level. Stefanovic, too, is an X-factor, but his resume as a teenager within Serbian professional club KK Partizan’s junior system indicates he could be a factor next season.
There are a lot of ifs right now inside the Huntsman Basketball Facility.
If all of the transfer portal guys are eligible, Utah’s first-year staff could be ahead of the curve. If the staff can cash in those three open scholarships on positions of need, the Utes, on paper, turn into more of a factor in the middle of the Pac-12.
If Smith can get all of the new and returning pieces to mesh, the word “rebuild” goes away and the Utes have the chance to do something Krystkowiak did not — be competitive immediately.