SALT LAKE CITY — This just might be the youngest Utah basketball team since the 1944 “Blitz Kids,” that legendary group of mostly freshmen players who took the Utes to an unexpected NCAA championship.
Nobody’s expecting an NCAA title from this year’s Ute team or even a Pac-12 title. Heck, maybe an NIT berth might be the ceiling.
That’s because the Utes will sport a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores with just one upperclassman on scholarship.
While it might seem like the Utes are a young bunch every year lately, this year’s team will top them all.
The average age of the scholarship players on the 2019-20 Ute basketball team is 19.4 years. That’s a full year younger than last year’s team, which averaged 20.6 years. Most of the other teams under coach Larry Krystkowiak have averaged between 20 and 21 years of age and have had at least six upperclassmen on the roster. That won’t be the case this year.
Seniors? The Utes have just one, 6-foot-9 walk-on forward Marc Reininger, who has played a grand total of 60 minutes in three seasons and scored just five points.
Juniors? Again, just one, Alfonso Plummer, a 6-1 guard from Puerto Rico, who played at Arizona Western last year.
That leaves the Utes with five sophomores and 10 freshmen on the roster. Among scholarship players, the numbers are zero seniors, one junior, three sophomores and eight freshmen.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Utes won’t win a lot of games this year.
They return three players who played significant minutes as freshmen and have several three- and four-star recruits entering the program this fall.
Timmy Allen, a 6-6 forward from Arizona, started 26 games and may have been the team’s most consistent and best all-around player, averaging 12.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game on 57.5 percent shooting. He needs to develop an outside shot (just seven 3-point attempts last year) and he could be an All-Pac-12 performer.
Both Gach showed some talent as a 6-7, 195-pound point guard, averaging 7.7 points per game, while starting half the Utes’ contests last year. Although not at the same level, he displays some of the same skills as former Ute point guard Delon Wright.
Riley Battin, a rugged 6-9, 220-pounder from Southern California, earned a starting spot midway through the season and had some solid games before tailing off a bit toward the end of the season. He averaged 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Those three give the Utes a solid base to work with, but Utah fans wonder how much better the squad would be if Jayce Johnson and Donnie Tillman hadn’t left the program.
The 7-foot Johnson started all of last year, but chose to leave after three years in and will play for Marquette as a graduate transfer.
Tillman, a part-time starter who earned Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year honors last season, put his name in for NBA draft, but took it out at the last minute and said he was returning to school. A week later Tillman announced he was taking a year off to be with his ailing mother in Las Vegas. Within days of that news, however, he put his name in the transfer portal and has since made visits to Rutgers and Illinois.
The Utes also lost Parker Van Dyke and Sedrick Barefield to graduation as well Vante Hendrix, a four-star recruit from California, who left early in the season last year. Three players with eligibility who also left the program were Charles Jones, a JC transfer who played sparingly, Christian Popoola, guard from Las Vegas, and Brandon Morley, a 7-footer from Bingham High and SLCC.
So who will emerge from among the eight freshmen recruits?
Nassem Gaskin is a 6-3 guard from Oakland, who was ranked among the top 50 players in California and sat out last season as a redshirt. Another player who sat out in 2018-19 was Lahat Thioune, a 6-10 center from Senegal, who played high school ball in Florida.
Two of the true freshmen are returned missionaries from Utah — Jaxon Brenchley, a 6-5 guard from Ridgeline High in Providence, and Branden Carlson, a 6-11 center from Bingham High, a four-star recruit who was ranked No. 1 in the state in 2017 by ESPN.
Two other local freshmen are Rylan Jones, a 6-1 guard from Olympus, who was named Mr. Basketball by the Deseret News two years in a row, and Matt Van Komen, a 7-4 center out of Pleasant Grove. Both Jones and Van Komen were four-star recruits, according to ESPN.34 comments on this story
The other freshmen are Mikael Jauntunen, a 6-8 forward from Finland, the No. 1 prospect out of his country who played under former Ute Hanno Mottola, and Brendan Wenzel, a 6-6 guard from Texas, who averaged 24 points a game last year and is known for his shooting ability.
The 2019-20 Ute schedule is still being finalized, but it should be a challenging slate with games against Kentucky in Las Vegas, Minnesota and BYU at home, Nevada on the road and the Myrtle Beach Invitational in South Carolina on Nov. 21-24 featuring Villanova, Mississippi State and Baylor.