Utah Utes basketball rebuilding

Krystkowiak's 1st season rough, but the future looking better for utes

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Utah Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak reacts during a free throw as Utah and Stanford play Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah 58-57.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The most challenging season in Utah basketball history came to a merciful end two weeks ago with a loss in the Pac-12 tournament.

The Utes, under first-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, struggled from day one this season and became the first team in school history to lose at least 20 games in a season before finishing with a 6-25 record — the worst mark in Utah basketball history. Along the way, the Utes set records for worst defeat ever as well as fewest points in a half and a game.

So what does the future hold for the beleaguered Ute program? Will it be relegated to a string of losing seasons as it tries to climb out of what seems like a huge sinkhole? Will it be years before the Utes make it to another NCAA Tournament?

Not necessarily.

Unlike a sport such as football, basketball can be turned around in a relatively short period of time. While the Utes won't necessarily win the Pac-12 next year or even be good enough to get an NCAA or postseason berth, they can be dramatically improved in a year's time.

The Utes could easily double their number of wins and even play around .500 ball next year. From there, it could take a couple of years to be in contention for postseason berths.

There are many examples out there of basketball programs that have turned things around in a hurry, either thanks to a new coach or an influx of new players or both.

Look at Indiana, which lost 20 games for three years running, but is 27-8 this season and made the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed. The Hoosiers were handcuffed by some NCAA sanctions against the previous coaching staff, but under coach Tom Crean have seen a big turnaround this year, improving from 12-20 last year.

Billy Gillispie twice turned programs around in a single year, taking UTEP from 6-24 in 2002-03 to 24-8 the following year. Then he went to Texas A&M and in his first year there took a 7-21 team and led it to a 21-10 record in his first year.

Closer to home, BYU was 1-25 in 1996-97, but improved to nine wins the next, 12 the year after that and to 22 in the third year with Steve Cleveland as head coach. The Cougars went to the NIT that year and since then have earned postseason berths 11 times in 12 seasons, including nine NCAA berths.

In the early 1980s, Utah State went from 4-23 to 20-9 in one year. And even Utah had its own turnaround season, going from 8-19 in 1972-73 to 22-8 and the NIT finals the following year.

If you ask people around the U. program, publicly they'll say that it's going to be a long haul. No need to make expectations too high, right?

"I can't give a good guess," said athletics director Chris Hill, who is on his third coach since Rick Majerus resigned eight years ago. "We all want tomorrow, but it's going to take a few years for us to get us where we can be a team that consistently gets in the NCAA Tournament. It's going to take a lot of building to consistently bring in recruits from the state and out of the state."

Krystkowiak is a little more bullish than Hill on how fast he can turn the program around.

"It is a different thing in basketball," he said. "In football you have 22 guys that are active, not counting special teams. You can get one or two impact guys in football and you still have a ways to go. But if you get one or two impact guys in basketball, you're talking about 20 or 40 percent of your guys that's playing, which can impact games."

Krystkowiak believes the Utes will be dramatically better next year thanks to new players coming into the program, including two tall returned missionaries, a couple of redshirts, three freshmen and a former two-year starter who sat out with an injury this year (David Foster),

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