Utah on the Slow Road Back to Basketball RelevancePosted by AMurawa on October 10th, 2013
If you’re strictly a fan of Pac-12 basketball, you may not know it, but Utah basketball has a long and storied tradition. There are the 36 regular season conference championships, 27 NCAA Tournament appearances, 15 Sweet Sixteens, four Final Fours and even the 1944 national championship. Names like Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Tom Chambers, Andrew Bogut and Mike Newlin have gone on to enjoy significant success in the NBA. The thing is, all of that occurred prior to the Utes accepting its membership in the Pac-12. Since they’ve been in our fair conference, the team has gone a combined 21-43 overall and 8-28 in conference play in two seasons. But, rest assured, Utah basketball will be back sooner rather than later.
The beginning of Larry Krystowiak’s reign as the head coach of the Utah basketball program coincides neatly with their inaugural season in the Pac-12, but unfortunately it also coincided with a need for a nearly complete roster overhaul. In the offseason before previous head coach Jim Boylen’s final season, four players (including names like Carlon Brown and Marshall Henderson) transferred out of the program. In the aftermath of the Boylen-to-Krystkowiak transition, seven more players left Salt Lake City. After Krystkowiak’s first season, six additional players transferred and still another headed off on an LDS mission. And this past offseason, continuing the trend, three more players alighted, all of whom had only played one year at Utah. What is left is a roster that has only one player who has been in the Utah program longer than a year. And that guy – 6’10″ redshirt sophomore Jeremy Olsen – has spent as many years away from the program on an LDS mission as he has in Salt Lake City.
But, while some cases of rampant roster turnover can be taken as a clear strike against the way the head coach is running the program, it seems clear that Krystkowiak has a plan that is slowly but surely coming together. After taking over a program with one of the least talented rosters in the country at the power conference level, the Utes struggled mightily in his first season, losing 11 games by more than 20 points and a total of 19 games by double figures. But as the season went on, that overmatched team played its opponents tighter and tighter, even after leading scorer and senior point guard Josh Watkins was suspended for the season. Last year the win total went up by nine and the number of double-digit losses correspondingly dropped significantly to just eight. The metrics showed a team that had improved significantly on both ends of the court (from 314th in the nation in offensive efficiency to 128th, and from 254th to 118th on the defensive end, according to Ken Pomeroy), but still a team with a long ways to go.
The good news is that Krystkowiak is beginning to assemble the right pieces. First it was in-state four-star forward Jordan Loveridge in the class of 2012, who came in last year and immediately made a difference. Brandon Taylor came in at the point out of Los Angeles and, after some initial skepticism, proved he could play at the Pac-12 level. This year, the Utes signed a couple more in-state players in Brandon Miller and Parker Van Dyke, although the former is already on his two-year LDS mission and the latter is expected to begin his in the summer after his freshman year. Meanwhile, JuCo transfers like Delon Wright and Princeton Onwas are expected to step into big roles right away, but the fact remains that, despite the overall uptick in talent, there still isn’t enough talent for the Utes to compete for an upper division finish this season.
However, Krystkowiak continues to bring in some strong recruits, especially those right in his own backyard. Brekkott Chapman, a 6’8” forward regarded as a four-star recruit, was the Utes’ initial signee of the 2014 class, but they’ve since added four-star wing Kyle Kuzma and three-star point guard Isaiah Wright, while continuing to mine for other prospects. Perhaps more importantly, the head coach has proven his ability to squeeze the most out of relatively undertalented rosters. If, he can continue to keep the best of the in-state recruits at home, patch in a handful of quality out-of-state recruits and then fill in from the junior college ranks and through Division I transfers, a la Dana Altman at Oregon, the Utes have the chance to earn their way back into NCAA Tournament talk, perhaps as early as next season.
A more realistic goal to a return to dancing may be the 2015-16 season, when theoretically Loveridge, Taylor, Olsen and Dakari Tucker will be seniors, while Miller will be back from his LDS mission and the 2014 class of Chapman, Kuzma and Wright will all be sophomores. Either way, you can certainly see the Utes inching their way up the Pac-12 ladder. It would behoove Utah fans, who have long been used to basketball success, to remain patient for the next round that appears to be coming.