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Utah Utes basketball: Can the Utes stand tall again?

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 10:35 a.m. MDT

Quite a few seats are left empty at the Huntsman Center as University of Utah fans watch the Utes game against San Diego State in Salt Lake City, Utah Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News) Quite a few seats are left empty at the Huntsman Center as University of Utah fans watch the Utes game against San Diego State in Salt Lake City, Utah Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference. Read the fifth, fourth, third, second and first installments.

SALT LAKE CITY — At 7-foot-3, Utah center David Foster has a pretty good view of things up on the hill. His vantage point, however, isn't all about height. It also involves circumstances.

Foster has seen a lot of change in his career with the Utes. Larry Krystkowiak will be his third head coach. Before serving an LDS Church mission in North Carolina, Foster played for Ray Giacoletti. Upon his return, Jim Boylen was running the show.

Now, as a senior, Foster is getting a triple dose of alterations — an all-new coaching staff, a revamped roster around him, and a move from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12.

Utah fans cheer as the All Century team is introduced at half time of the University of Utah and San Diego State game at the Huntsman Center February 16, 2008. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Utah fans cheer as the All Century team is introduced at half time of the University of Utah and San Diego State game at the Huntsman Center February 16, 2008. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

As overwhelming as it all might be, Foster is taking it all in stride.

"I'm very optimistic that we can do great things," he said. "We've just got to put the time and effort into doing it."

It won't be easy, however. Only four players (Foster, point guard Josh Watkins, guard Chris Hines and center/forward Jason Washburn) return from last season's squad that went 13-18. The rest of this year's playing slots will be filled by guys without major college experience — transfers Glen Dean (Eastern Washington) and Aaron Dotson (LSU) won't be able to play for Utah until 2012-13.

 (T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News archives, Scott G. Winterton, deseret news) (T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News archives, Scott G. Winterton, deseret news)

That leaves junior college transfers Javon Dawson (6-7, 260), Dijon Farr (6-6, 213) and Cedric Martin (6-4, 190), returning LDS Church missionary Josh Sharp (6-7, 185) and high school signees George Matthews (6-7, 220), Anthony Odunsi (6-3, 200) and Kareem Storey (6-0, 190) in the rotation.

"I'm really excited about the new recruits coming in," Foster said. "Props to the coaches, they've just been working their tails off to find these players. There's been a lot of adversity and they've just done a tremendous job finding these guys, especially so late as far as the signing year goes."

Foster acknowledged that he and the other returnees will need to lead the way in Utah's move to the Pac-12.

"The four of us have a responsibility to set that foundation, to set the bar high and to help those new guys coming in to work hard and be prepared for the upcoming season," he said. "So we have to set the example for the team."

Fans cheer as Utah's All-Century team is introduced at the Huntsman Center in 2008. Home attendance has been on the decline. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Fans cheer as Utah's All-Century team is introduced at the Huntsman Center in 2008. Home attendance has been on the decline. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

As such, there's no looking back.

"Right now, all I'm focused on is how we can better," Foster said.

It's the big-picture goal of the once-proud program. Only 17 other teams have made more NCAA Tournament appearances than the Utes. They've made only one appearance, however, since 2005 — falling to Arizona in the first round in 2009.

"It's our goal to make NCAA tournaments," Krystkowiak said as Utah prepares for the challenge of joining one of the nation's premier conferences.

The recognition that the league brings, along with the lucrative new television contract, puts the Utes in better position to do so.

Krystkowiak notes that when things get amped up, the Pac-12 could legitimately get six teams in the NCAA tourney each year.

David Foster, a 7-foot-3 center, is one of just four University of Utah basketball players who will return from last season's squad that went 13-18. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News) David Foster, a 7-foot-3 center, is one of just four University of Utah basketball players who will return from last season's squad that went 13-18. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News)

"So you're going to have to be pretty competitive," he said. "I think it's pretty simple to look at some of the teams that are in this league and know that we've got some challenges ahead."

Joining the ranks of Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State will require building depth in the program.

"Not only do you have to get some elite players to take the majority of the minutes, you better have some pretty good guys as backups as well," Krystkowiak said.

Many of the teams in the Pac-12, he continued, already have that.

Same goes for facilities. While the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center will be the biggest venue in the conference, Utah's practice courts (for both the men's and women's basketball programs) are in need of an upgrade. Plans have already been drawn up to take care of that.

University of Utah basketball player 7-3 center David Foster Friday, Jan. 8, 2010, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) University of Utah basketball player 7-3 center David Foster Friday, Jan. 8, 2010, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"The price of poker goes up," Krystkowiak said of switching leagues.

The Utes, though, are joining the game with a relatively clean slate. They're entering uncharted territory with a new coaching staff and a roster overhaul.

"I would stay it's starting over for the most part," Krystkowiak said. "We've got four guys back from last year's team. There's going to be a number of new faces. We've got a new staff."

That, however, doesn't mean everything is new.

The program does have a winning tradition (UCLA and Arizona are the only Pac-12 teams to play more NCAA Tournament games than the Utes), Krystkowiak noted, plus a great arena.

It remains to be seen if the element of surprise could also be factor this season because of all the changes.

"I don't know if you would say it's an advantage. It makes you dangerous if you can win. If we've won three games in a row when we're playing somebody, they'd probably feel like we're a little more dangerous because they don't understand what we're doing," Krystkowiak said. "But you know, what with today's film and the way you can break it down pretty quick, it won't take long for staffs to figure out what you are trying to do."

As for what the Utes will do, Krystkowiak acknowledged it'll depend on the team's personnel. Once they get more familiar with the players, the coaching staff will put them into position to be successful.

In the meantime, Utah's coaches are getting a handle of what the other Pac-12 teams are doing as far as schemes and tendencies. They've divided things up and will make presentations to the rest of the staff.

Krystkowiak has hired former Ute point guard Tommy Connor (Westminster), DeMarlo Slocum (Colorado State) and Andy Hill (Montana) as his assistants. Longtime Salt Lake Community College coach Norm Parrish is the new director of basketball operations.

"I'm really excited about this coaching staff," Foster said. "They not only know how to work hard, they know how to work smart. They're very skilled in coaching. Each coach brings to the team a certain piece of experience from the past."

Getting to the good ol' days is exactly what the Utes aim to do when they join the Pac-12.

"It's a great opportunity," Foster said. "We're excited."

Utah men's basketball at a glance

Biggest advantage: The Huntsman Center is the biggest venue in the league. However, the 15,000-seat arena has been far from full in recent years as attendance has dwindled. The element of surprise, though, with a new coaching staff and a revamped roster, may be Utah's greatest advantage.

Biggest challenge: The schedule. It remains to be seen how Utah will fare against a steady diet of Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State.

Number: 4 Just four players (David Foster, Chris Hines, Josh Washburn, Jiggy Watkins) return from last season's 13-18 team that led to coach Jim Boylen's dismissal.

Utah athletics director Chris Hill says of Krystkowiak: "There are tremendous challenges ahead as we go into the Pac-12. We'll have a competition level at the highest we've ever had. I couldn't think of anyone better that would bring with us that toughness and discipline to make us successful."

Leaders of the Pac: UCLA has won the regular-season title 30 times. California is second with 15, while Arizona and Stanford have won the crown 12 and 11 times, respectively. Washington has won the past two conference tournaments.

Bottom line: Utah's first season in the Pac-12 carries low expectations. The program is rebuilding and enters the upcoming campaign with more questions than answers.

Head count

NCAA scholarship max limit: 13

Utah actual award, 2010-11: 12.5

Pac-12 men's basketball programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State.

Note: The University of Utah offers the NCAA maximum for all sports, should the coach want to use them. Numbers reflect not only people who have quit, are cut or withdrawn, but also cases where a coach held back scholarships (or parts of scholarships in the case of the equivalency sports) in one year so that they would have more to use in another year.

email: dirk@desnews.com

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