SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak believes the Utes can get back into the NCAA Tournament after a three-year absence. He's pretty much planning on it.
“I’m not into ifs and buts and candy and nuts and all that stuff. I know we can get to the NCAA Tournament next year,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s what we’re shooting for, trying to assemble a roster that can do that. I’m completely confident we can do that and we’ve got to believe we will. That’s the goal.”
Utah went 17-14 this past season, ending its campaign with a 66-54 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals — marking the first time the Utes failed to make the NCAA or NIT field since the 2012-13 season.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to play in the NIT, for sure, but I thought conference play-wise, for us to finish third was a heck of an accomplishment,” Krystkowiak said. “We had a solid group that seemed to get better as the year went on.”
Projected to finish eighth in the Pac-12’s preseason poll, the Utes exceeded expectations to become the only program in the league to earn a first-round bye in the conference tourney each of the past five seasons.
“It says a lot about the fact that we’ve taken care of business in the regular season,” said Krystkowiak, who added that now they’ve got to take advantage of it and win some games in Las Vegas. The Utes have been ousted in openers three straight times.
“So I’m not satisfied by it and there’s a lot of work left to do,” Krystkowiak continued. “It’s a great accomplishment (to earn a bye). But at the same time it really is meaningless.”
The goal is getting to the NCAAs. It’s where Krystkowiak and the program obviously want to be. He’s confident Utah has a pretty good blueprint to get there. Krystkowiak explained the Utes were close two years ago, but were hurt by the fact that they only played the top four teams in the Pac-12 (Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC) only once each that season because of the scheduling rotation — costing them four shots at additional top-50 wins.
“I know we’ve been close the last few years — not good enough,” Krystkowiak said. “I know we can get there in the future and beyond. That is about all I think about.”
Getting there will likely require assistance with some things that are out of Utah’s control. Namely, improved play from the Pac-12 as a whole.
“As a conference we have to win 75 percent of our preseason games to get respect nationally,” Krystkowiak said. “It happened in ’16 when we had seven teams go to the NCAA Tournament.”
That season the Pac-12 didn’t get beat up nationally despite topping one another in conference play. It’s imperative that it be a “top-to-bottom concept,” Krystkowiak explained, so that you can’t have a bad league loss.
“If we can do a better job as a conference in the preseason, then our conference matters a lot,” he continued. “Because you’re going to get Quadrant 1 wins, you’ll get numerous. So it all matters.”
Utah didn’t fare so well in non-conference games during the 2018-19 season. Besides losing opportunities against Minnesota, BYU and Kentucky, the Utes dropped decisions to Hawaii and Northwestern in the Wooden Classic. Krystkowiak admits there was a lot of dysfunction at the Thanksgiving weekend tournament.
“We’ve got to be far better earlier and have an identity,” he said. “I think we will with the guys we have coming back, even with the number of new guys coming in.”
Krystkowiak acknowledged it’s not an exact science. Utah has a challenging preseason schedule next season that includes a game against Kentucky in Las Vegas and a road trip to Nevada, plus home games against BYU and Minnesota. The Utes face Weber State in the Beehive Classic and are slated to play in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, Nov. 21-22 and 24. That field includes Baylor, Coastal Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State, Ohio, Tulane and Villanova.
The Pac-12 promises to be much more competitive following a year that Krystkowiak described as being young with defections and injuries. He said things eventually got better last season, but it was too late to change the narrative nationally.
Utah had a youth movement of its own last season with freshmen Timmy Allen (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Both Gach (7.7 ppg) and Riley Battin (6.4 ppg) becoming starters and seeing significant playing time. The trio has given the Utes a solid foundation upon which to build.
There’s plenty of other reasons for optimism. Junior-to-be Donnie Tillman (10.5 ppg) is the Pac-12’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year and redshirts Naseem Gaskin and Lahat Thioune are described by Krystkowiak as being two of the most athletic players in the program. Gaskin is a shooting guard and Thioune is a power forward.
Newcomers include forward Mikael Jantunen from Finland, guard Brendan Wenzel of San Antonio, Texas, and four Utah prep products — point guard Rylan Jones (Olympus), center Matt Van Komen (Pleasant Grove), shooting guard Jaxon Brenchley (Ridgeline) and power forward Branden Carlson (Bingham). Brenchley and Carlson are coming off of church missions.
“I’ve watched these kids that happen to be coming in since they’ve been little whippersnappers because they’ve grown up with my boys,” said Krystkowiak, noting that they’re all “our kind of guys.”
Krystkowiak added that there’s a lot to be said about the high school talent in the state.
“We’re fired up about all these guys and ready to throw them to the fire,” he said.
It’s hoped that the additions will offset graduation losses that include first-team all-conference guard Sedrick Barefield (16.8 ppg) and sharpshooter Parker Van Dyke (8.5 ppg), who hit a game-winner at the buzzer at UCLA. Junior center Jayce Johnson (7.7 rpg) may be headed out as well after entering the NCAA transfer portal.
Krystkowiak doesn’t know much about the latter and declined to comment extensively. He does, however, consider the portal to be “one of the goofiest things” he’s seen.
Simply put, Krystkowiak said it’s more negative than positive.
Besides Johnson, junior college transfer Charles Jones Jr. has also entered the portal. Krystkowiak, though, doesn’t care for talk that the Utes seem to lose a lot of scholarship players. He chalks it up to “whatever people want to say.”
As for any criticism, Krystkowiak notes that the staff and those within the program feel really good about what’s going on with the team. He insists there’s no mistreatment — citing Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers as a former player who loved to be coached up while on the team.
Krystkowiak mentioned the support of director of athletics Mark Harlan, University of Utah president Ruth Watkins and others in the circle that understand the surroundings and environment. Krystkowiak referenced such challenges as the transfer portal, early draft entry, signing with agents and the ability for players to come back after doing so.
“It hasn’t made college coaching any easier,” Krystkowiak said. “But we understand it. We’re going to navigate it. We’re going to keep doing a hell of a job with it.”
And if people want to say something this time of year, Krystkowiak doesn’t seem to care.
“I’ll stay out of your business, you stay out of our business. Judge, don’t judge. Whatever the case may be. That’s the way it is,” he said.
As the nationwide culture of kids not wanting to wait their turn did seems to grow, Krystkowiak has given serious thought to the Syracuse model of just signing 10 players and bringing in six to eight walk-ons.
“If I’ve made a mistake it’s probably thinking we always need 13 scholarships,” he said. “You want to have depth. You want to give kids a chance and let the cream rise to the top and be ultra-competitive. The problem is in today’s age, that doesn’t work.”
In 2018-19, Utah’s success was stymied by defensive woes. The Utes finished 290th nationally in field goal percentage defense, 334th in turnover margin, 338th in steals, and 347th in turnovers forced.46 comments on this story
“Defense wins championships,” said Krystkowiak, who stated that vast improvement in terms of getting in front of people and making stops is a “focal point moving forward.”
The Utes were markedly better with the ball last season. They wound up 22nd overall in offensive efficiency.
Since taking over the program in 2011 when Utah joined the Pac-12, Krystkowiak has guided the Utes to six consecutive winning seasons and an overall record of 155-111. They had a run of five 20-win campaigns from 2013-18.