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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Josh Watkins, Chris Hines, Jason Washburn and David Foster, (from left) the four returning players to the University of Utah basketball team Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — David Foster, Chris Hines, Jason Washburn and Josh Watkins made quite an initial impression on new University of Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak.

They stood out, Krystkowiak noted, in the first team meeting he held after being hired to replace Jim Boylen.

"You could kind of look around the room and you saw a look in those four guys, in particular," Krystkowiak said. "I just remember they were engaged and ready to go."

And stay, for that matter — the lone holdovers from last season.

Krystkowiak considers them the "cornerstones of what we're trying to build and get rolling here" as the Utes enter their inaugural Pac-12 campaign.

Foster, a 7-foot-3 center, and Watkins, a 5-foot-11 point guard, are returning starters and the only seniors in the program. Hines, a 6-foot guard, and Washburn, a 6-foot-10 pivot man, are juniors who made valuable contributions off the bench and were part-time starters in 2010-11.

The four players combined for a significant percentage of Utah's statistical output last season — teaming for 82.5 percent of the blocked shots, 52 percent of the assists, 43.3 percent of the steals, 42 percent of the points and 36.3 percent of the rebounds.

It's a solid foundation to build upon after a massive revamping of the roster.

"Some of those players broke up with us and some of those players we broke up with them," Krystkowiak said. "In any relationship, it's just about moving on and hopefully finding something that's a better fit."

While noting there's a number of different stories involving player departures, Krystkowiak is fine with out things have turned out. There's something to be said about starting fresh and knowing who is in your corner, especially for a self-described "big, fox-hole guy."

Krystkowiak acknowledges he didn't expect the program to lose that many guys when he took over. However, on the flip side, it allowed the new coaching staff to find some players they really like to take on the challenges ahead.

Regardless of the roster, Krystkowiak said the slate has pretty much been wiped clean and everyone is starting over.

That includes Foster, Hines, Washburn and Watkins.

"Even though they are returning, it's still quite a bit new to them," Krystkowiak said. "So it's kind of a new era and we're ready to get going."

Although the team has had limited workouts since Krystkowiak's arrival last spring, practice begins in earnest later this week as the meshing of the four returnees and nine newcomers continue.

"We've got guys who want to work and I think we've got guys that want to buy in and just play ball," Washburn said. "I think that's what it's going to take to compete in the Pac-12. It's a tough conference. We're going to have to play our hearts out and we're going to have to compete to be up there."

Leading the charge, he continued, will be "The Four Horsemen." Washburn said that's what Krystkowiak called them when it became apparent who would be coming back.

"We're trying to be leaders," Washburn said. "But we're trying not to overstep our bounds too much."

It's a partnership, after all.

"Our success is going to have to come collectively," Krystkowiak said. "Obviously you've got certain players that may be counted on to do a little bit more, but we just can't get it done if we don't think about all being on the same page and trying to do it as a team."

The tradition surrounding the program, he continued, is bigger than any one individual.

It's an approach the players, especially the returnees, are working hard to embrace.

"The guys who want to be here and have one thing on their mind — and that's winning — they're here," Hines said.

Each player's path, however, had it's own set of circumstances.

Besides having the tallest vantage point on the team, Foster has a perspective like no one else in the program. He's played for three different head coaches — Ray Giacoletti, Boylen and now Krystkowiak.

"It's tough. I'm not only adjusting to a new coaching staff, but also a new set of guys," Foster said. "Every year I've been here, there's been a huge turnover. But I've been a big believer that trials make you stronger."

Foster's career at Utah began in 2006-07. He saw limited action, appearing in 20 games and averaging less than five minutes per outing.

An LDS Church mission to North Carolina followed before Foster rejoined the Utes in 2009-10. He earned Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors after averaging four blocked shots per game.

Last season, however, wasn't as successful. Nagging knee pain limited Foster's effectiveness. Not enough, though, to keep him off the MWC's all-defensive team with 3.2 blocks per game.

Foster has stayed injury free over the summer while getting in better shape than he's been in over the past couple of years.

"He's working his tail off. He's doing some things conditioning-wise that I know he's never done before," Krystkowiak said. "His health is probably the most important thing. If we can keep him healthy throughout the course of the season, I truly believe he could lead the country in blocked shots."

Foster, he added, should also be a bigger part of the offense this season. Krystkowiak considers Foster one of the team leaders and praised him for completely buying in to what the coaching staff is trying to accomplish.

When Boylen was fired, there were times when Foster wondered if he should look at other options. What if he didn't get along with the new coach? What if the new coach didn't want him to stay?

Such concerns never materialized.

"I feel like I'm a good listener and very teachable," Foster said. "So it was a smooth transition."

His decision to remain at Utah, ultimately, was easy.

"A simple statement. In 2005, I committed here and I want to remain. That's something I've always lived by," Foster said. "I committed to a completely different coaching staff, but a completely same program as far as school goes, as far as the tradition goes and as far as my family ethics go. I'm always going to stay here and this is where I'll remain."

Although it was an emotional time for the players, Boylen's dismissal didn't prompt a complete exodus. Like Foster, Washburn and Watkins, Hines decided he wanted to stay put.

"I've never been a quitter in my life and I definitely don't want to quit a program that's had my back since I was a freshman," Hines said. "So I want to bring a lot of fire back to Utah basketball and the winning atmosphere and everything it stands for. It's the ninth-winningest program in the history of the NCAA and I believe in bringing it back. I don't believe in running away."

Hines came up big for the Utes last season, hitting a buzzer-beating shot in an upset win at New Mexico. He averaged 4.9 points as a sophomore and made 12 starts. Hines scored at a 3.2 clip as a redshirt freshman in 2009-10.

Krystkowiak likes Hines' ability to hit shots and defend. He also appreciates his work ethic.

Hines has taken his conditioning to a new level, noting he's never worked so hard or felt better physically.

"We're getting pushed more. With the old coaching staff we were getting pushed as well, but we're definitely getting pushed harder in terms of more running and getting in shape," Hines said after noting the coaching personalities between Boylen and Krystkowiak are definitely different — as in night and day.

"I'm definitely glad I stayed," Hines said. "It's the University of Utah. The culture here, the fans here, they've always had my back. We're just trying to get them to have the program back again."

The circumstances, he continued, couldn't be better. Playing in the Pac-12 is a dream come true.

"They're just great programs and they have names and history behind them, Hines said. "So it's going to be fun to bring the University of Utah with our history and clash."

Washburn says Boylen was like a father to him. He was one of the first guys to recruit the former Michigan prep star and his firing was emotional. Even so, it didn't lead to a transfer as it did for others.

"It's a business and the university did what they thought was best," Washburn said. "I'm going to miss him, but Coach K is my coach now and I'm very happy with that. I'm looking forward to the season and trying to win."

The fact that only three of his teammates from last season remain with the program, however, was a bit surprising.

"When a head coach leaves and you know he's the main reason most of your guys come, you've got to expect a few transfers here and there. But maybe I didn't expect it to be this drastic — so many guys to leave," Washburn said. "But they did what's best for them and I've got no anger towards them or anything like that. I miss them. I'm going to miss them, but they did what they thought was best."

And staying at Utah was his best option.

"I love being here. I love to be at Utah. I love being a Ute," Washburn said. "This university has given me a lot. Personally, I kind of feel like I owe them something."

After a redshirt year, Washburn took the court in 2008-09 and led the team with a shooting percentage of .585. He also ranked among the conference leaders in blocks at 1.1 per game. Last season, as sophomore, Washburn upped his shooting to 61.8 percent and maintained his blocks average. He played in 31 games and started in 13 of them.

"I'm just trying to get better, Washburn said. "I'm trying to play with whoever is out on the court with me and trying to win. That's all."

Although he was slowed by a knee injury over the summer and a back problem later on, Washburn is working his way back into shape.

"He's eager to learn," Krystkowiak said. "I think that his size and his ability to run are all positive. He just needs to get his legs underneath him after getting healthy."

After leading his junior college team (Howard) to a national championship and earning tournament MVP honors in 2010, "Jiggy" Watkins signed with the Utes. It proved to be a good fit as the former New York City prep star went on to average 14.5 points and 3.5 assists last season.

Then came the coaching change.

"When it first happened we all took it real hard because we got attached to one coach. Then we had a new coach coming in that we didn't know anything about," Watkins said. "But I stuck around to see what he is about and when I first heard him speak he seemed like he was a real sincere guy who wanted to work."

Krystkowiak made an immediate and lasting impression. Watkins decided he would love to play for a guy like that.

"I gave him a chance and I wanted to stay because I love being in Utah with all these fans and they support us," Watkins said. "I can't just bail out on them. I came here and signed the oath that I would be here until I graduate. So that's how it goes."

And there's more.

"I've got unfinished business. Most definitely. I expect a winning season this year and for us to go real far," he continued. "We're working as hard as one of the top teams in the nation right now. Now we've just got to play like it."

Krystkowiak is convinced Watkins can be one of the top point guards in the Pac-12 if he can overcome some health issues and improve his conditioning.

"If we can get him at more of a point guard playing weight I think you're going to see some great strides by him," Krystkowiak said. "One thing I've noticed he's probably always been known as a scoring point guard, but he's doing a really nice job of getting guys shots and penetrating and kind of being the consummate point guard for us right now."

Krystkowiak also had praise for Watkins' leadership. It's a role the senior embraces as he enters his final season of college ball.

"I'm happy. I'm real happy I stayed," Watkins said. "I made a great decision on staying."

email: dirk@desnews.com