Mike Sorensen: Utah hoops headed for rock-bottom season

Published: Sunday, Dec. 4 2011 7:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Most schools have these kinds of years at some point in their history.

Utah State had one in 1981-82. BYU's came in 1996-97.

Utah has never had one in basketball.

We're talking about that rock-bottom season where a team loses nearly every game.

For the Aggies, it was a 4-23 record in the aforementioned 1981-82 season.

BYU hit rock bottom in the mid-90s when Roger Reid was fired after seven games and Tony Ingle was left to try to pick up the pieces as the Cougars finished 1-25.

From all indications, Utah is about to have a season like the Aggies and Cougars did once upon a time.

Coach Larry Krystkowiak does not have much talent on his roster this year and will be hard-pressed to win more than a handful of games, based on what we've seen so far.

The Utes lost most of their players from last year and had to scrape up some leftover recruits once Krystkowiak got the job last April. This fall he's seen two of his four returnees go down with injuries already, including one key player (David Foster) who will likely miss most of the season.

No wonder the Utes are off to their worst start in history with perhaps the worst season in U. basketball history in sight.

The Utes' six losses have been by an average of 20 points to a bunch of teams they would have beaten in their sleep in past years. Besides losing to teams such as UNC-Ashville, Harvard and UMass, the Utes also lost to a Boise State team picked for last in the Mountain West Conference, a Montana State team picked for seventh in the Big Sky and a Fresno State team picked for seventh in the WAC by, gulp, 30 points.

Up ahead are games against BYU and Weber State, which look like sure losses. Utah also gets Cal State Fullerton, picked to finish in the top half of the Big West, Portland, picked near the bottom of the WCC and Idaho State, picked for last in the Big Sky before embarking on its initial Pac-12 season.

If the Utes can muster up a couple of victories in those five games, they should be doing cartwheels. Even one win might be cause for celebration.

It's a testament to how good the Utah basketball program has been over the years that it's never gone through such a season before.

Since 1930, when they started playing at least 20 games in a season, the Utes have had just 15 losing seasons out of 81 and only two seasons with single-digit wins. In 1935-36, they went 7-15 and in 1972-73 they finished 8-19.

That's quite amazing. Even basketball-rich schools such as Kansas, Indiana and UCLA have had more single-digit win seasons.

It's not a huge surprise that this was going to be a rough year for Utah.

The Utes not only changed coaches (for the third time in seven years), but three starters with remaining eligibility transferred.

Still, with two-year starting center Foster returning, along with starting point guard Jiggy Watkins and two key reserves, Chris Hines and Jason Washburn, the Utes at least had something to work with.

The big blow came in an exhibition game when Foster broke his foot in the opening minutes of the game and Hines went out with an injury to his ribs, which he still isn't 100 percent recovered from.

Though not an offensive threat, Foster makes a huge difference on defense, where he is already the all-time blocks leader at Utah and was the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year as a sophomore. And Foster was apparently making significant strides offensively before his injury.

Even some folks close to the program acknowledge that this year's Ute team will have a very difficult time winning more than a few games.

If the Utes had kept coach Jim Boylen, they would have likely won half their games this year and perhaps finished in the top half of a lousy Pac-12.

All five Ute starters would have returned, including leading scorer Will Clyburn, forward Shawn Glover and promising forward J.J. O'Brien, along with Watkins, Foster and Washburn.

However, based on Boylen's four years, athletics director Chris Hill figured the Utes' future in basketball would be a bunch of 18-15 and 14-17 seasons, not the 20-win seasons the Utes became used to under Rick Majerus for 15 years.

So Hill took somewhat of a gamble by firing Boylen with three years left on his contract and bringing in Krystkowiak.

Right now, that looks like a poor decision to many Ute fans, who have never experienced the ineptitude they're seeing so far this year.

I really don't know if Krystkowiak will turn things around at the U. He's a good guy, who hired a strong staff and has had some success as a head coach. The big key will be if he can bring in the proper talent to compete in the Pac-12 and get those players to play together.

The thing about basketball is that turning around a program in a hurry is easier than it is in football.

Utah State bounced back from its 4-23 year with a 20-9 season the next year under Rod Tueller. BYU took a little longer, but three years after hitting rock bottom, the Cougars won 22 games under Steve Cleveland.

The 2012-13 season should see major improvement for the Utes. Two of the better players in Ute practices are transfers from other D-I schools and Krystkowiak has signed four new players already, including the best player in Utah, Jordan Loveridge. And 6-foot-10 Jeremy Olsen is returning from an LDS mission.

After getting back to double-figure wins next year and to .500 the year after that, the Utes should be winning 20 games by Krystkowiak's fourth year if he's everything he's cracked up to be.

That's a lot of patience for fans of a once-proud basketball program. But that's the reality for the Utes right now.

email: sor@desnews.com

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