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?
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),
In fact, even though the Utes don't lose a single senior from this year's team, it's not a stretch to say they could have an entirely new starting lineup next year with this year's starters available as valuable backups.
Let's begin with Foster, who has started for two seasons, including the 2009-10 season when he was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and set the school record for blocked shots. Even if he just split time with this year's starter Jason Washburn, who was the Utes' best overall player this season, the post position would see a big improvement. Also the two could play together on the front line with Washburn playing the big forward spot.
Two redshirt guards sitting out, Aaron Dotson and Glen Dean, have already been starters at their previous stops at LSU and Eastern Washington, respectively, and should be an upgrade to this year's starters, according to some who have watched them play.
Of the three freshmen coming it, small forward Jordan Loveridge from West Jordan High could move into a starting role as a freshman.
The two other freshmen who signed with Utah in the fall are Justin Seymour, a 6-3 combo guard from Georgia whom Krystkowiak believes "will surprise some folks" and Josh Hearhily, a 6-7 forward from California, whom Krystkowiak calls "a diamond in the rough."
And either of the two returned missionaries, 6-10 Jeremy Olsen, who redshirted a year before his mission, and 6-11 Dallin Bachynski, who played at Southern Utah before his mission, could be good enough to start at the power forward position.
The Utes could add even more players during the spring signing period, but that would mean the Utes would have to jettison more players from this year's team.
The Ute coaches haven't made any decisions yet, but right now at least three scholarship players on this year's team won't be back next year to make room for all the new players.
Most likely to return are seniors Chris Hines, Cedric Martin and Dijon Farr along with freshman Kareem Storey, each of whom started this year. Those who might want to leave or be encouraged to leave would be freshmen Anthony Odunsi and George Matthews and JC transfer Javon Dawson. Freshman Blake Wilkinson, who started some games as a freshman after coming out of Viewmont High, is leaving on an LDS mission this spring.
Besides recruiting, Krystowiak says another key component to the Utes' future success is scheduling. Like it or not, a team has to have a favorable schedule with a lot of home games to instill some confidence in a young team, while padding its record.
This year, the Utes had the most challenging non-conference schedule in the Pac-12 with only six home games. Ten of the 12 teams had from eight to 10 non-league home games, and only Washington State had as few as six home games.
Krystkowiak said his team will have a comparable schedule to other Pac-12 schools with as many as 19 home games, including 10 in the preseason. This year the Utes played their three "exempt" games in a tournament in the Bahamas, but next year will play three such games at home over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Despite his overall optimism, Krystkowiak knows it won't be smooth sailing at Utah for a little while.
"There's going to be some turnover and we'll go through the newness again," he said. "But I think next year's going to be a heck of a lot better than this year. I know that will be the case, I think we've come quite a ways in one year and I feel comfortable we can make good strides again next year."
UTAH BASKETBALL YEAR-IN-REVIEW
Overall record: 6-25 (3-13 Pac-12)
Wins: San Diego Christian, Idaho State, Portland, Washington State, Arizona State, Stanford.
Losses: Boise State, Montana State, Harvard, Massachusetts, UNC Asheville, Fresno State, CS Fullerton, BYU, Weber State, Colorado (three times), Washington, Stanford, California (twice), Arizona (twice), Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Oregon (twice), Oregon State (twice).
Home: 6-9. Away: 0-12. Neutral sites: 0-4.
Average home attendance: 8,394.
Average away attendance: 6,500.
Average neutral site attendance: 3,591.
Scoring: Jason Washburn, 11.4 ppg.
Rebounding: Jason Washburn, 6.2 rpg.
FG percentage: Jason Washburn, 55.2 percent.
FT percentage: Jason Washburn, 77.4 percent.
3-pointers made: Chris Hines, 66.
Minutes played: Cedric Martin, 31.1 mpg.
Assists: Kareem Storey, 97.
Blocked shots: Jason Washburn, 43.
Steals: Dijon Farr, 27.
Turnovers: Kareem Storey, 81.
April 4: Larry Krystkowiak introduced as head coach.
Nov. 4: Senior center David Foster injures his foot in 61-60 exhibition loss to Adams State and is sidelined for the rest of the season.
Nov. 14: Utes defeat San Diego Christian in season-opener, 58-55.
Jan. 5: Utah edges Washington State 62-60 in overtime for historic first Pac-12 victory.
Jan. 18: Team scoring and assists leader Josh "Jiggy" Watkins dismissed from squad for unspecified violation of team rules.
Feb. 25: Utes close out their home schedule with 58-57 upset of Stanford..
March 7: Eventual champion Colorado eliminates Utah from the Pac-12 Tournament, 53-41.