Young Utah basketball team exceeded expectations, looks ahead to bright future

first_imgSALT LAKE CITY — Back in early November, if you’d have asked most basketball folks what they expected from the University of Utah hoops team this year, it’s doubtful many would have predicted a winning season.After all, the Utes were fielding a team that had more true freshmen than any team in the country (10) with a 17-man roster that included 15 underclassmen and a junior college transfer. The only senior was a former walk-on who had scored a total of five points in his career. The Utes were the second-youngest team in America out of 353 schools.So why did the season feel like a disappointment when Utah finished with a 16-15 record?Perhaps because the young Utes exceeded expectations in the early season with wins over teams like Kentucky and BYU, which finished sixth and 15th in the national rankings when the season was shut down. Utah also had that record-breaking 94-point victory over Mississippi Valley State, picked up a road win at Nevada and beat a good Minnesota team at home. At one point the Utes had a 9-2 record. The high point of the season may have been that three-point win over Kentucky in Las Vegas in front of a raucous pro-Kentucky crowd at T-Mobile Arena. Utah came back to earth three days later in Los Angeles when a San Diego State that would finish the year 30-2, walloped them by 28 points.Then came league play against a Pac-12 Conference that was much-improved over the past couple of seasons, with half of the league’s 12 teams likely headed to the NCAA Tournament that was never played. After opening with a win over Oregon State, the Utes lost four straight and six of their next eight games to fall into the second division of the conference, where they’d stay the rest of the season.There were highlights — a comeback victory over Washington, an overtime win over Stanford, a 14-point victory over USC and another overtime win in the regular-season finale against Colorado. However, Utah also looked every bit the young team it was with six conference losses by 16 points or more, including a 39-point trouncing at Colorado.The Utes felt they were ready for a postseason run, but they blew a 14-point second-half lead over Oregon State in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament on what turned out to be the final night of the college basketball season. It left ninth-year Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak feeling frustrated, yet proud of his young squad for its accomplishments.“This group is connected,” Krystkowiak said after the final game. “It’s as positive of a culture that we’ve had at Utah, and we’ve got a number of young kids. We’ve been talking about it all year.“There’s been a number of times where we’ve got four or five guys on the floor, oftentimes four freshmen,” he continued. “This is about a process. That’s in our practice facility all over the place, ‘trust the process.’ You’re judged by wins and losses, obviously, but what we need is experience.”Inconsistency was one word that described the Utes, who had trouble getting strong performances from more than one player on the same night.Forward Timmy Allen was the team leader and led in both scoring and rebounding at 17.3 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game, earning All-Pac-12 second-team honors. He found the going tougher in league play after averaging more than 21 points per game in nonconference play, and shot just 37.5% from the field.Guard Both Gach had some big games — 22 points at Nevada, 19 against Minnesota, 24 against Oregon in the early going and 15 at Stanford and 28 against Colorado near the end. But in between he struggled. He sat out five games with a lower leg injury and didn’t get out of single figures for nine games. Forward Riley Battin had started the first 28 games and had some solid outings, but was supplanted in the starting lineup for the final three contests after a stretch when he scored just 12 points in five games.Two local freshmen were impressive in their first years of college basketball.“This group is connected. It’s as positive of a culture that we’ve had at Utah, and we’ve got a number of young kids. We’ve been talking about it all year.” — Utah head coach Larry KrystkowiakRylan Jones, a 6-foot-1 guard out of Olympus High, started every game he was healthy (28 games) and was second on the team in minutes and third in scoring at 9.6 points per game, while leading the team in assists with 4.5 per game. But he battled injuries all season, with ankle sprains early on, a rib injury in mid-December, a shin injury late in late February. A head injury against Cal kept him out the rest of the season with concussion symptoms.Seven-footer Branden Carlson (Bingham High), who started the season just five months off a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made great strides as the season progressed and finished with a 7.0 scoring average on 54.9% shooting and showed off his defensive prowess with a pair of 8-blocked-shot games, both against Stanford. Another local freshman, Jaxon Brenchley (Ridgeline High), started seven games and was third on the team in 3-point percentage at 36.4. Mikael Jantunen, a 6-8 forward from Finland, saw his minutes rise as the season went along and he ended up as the team’s leading shooter at 66.1% and second leading rebounder (4.9 per game). Redshirt freshman Lahat Thioune played nine minutes a game at the center position and started a couple.Alfonso Plummer, the lone junior on the team, played sporadically during the season, but came on strong at the end, posting 23, 21 and 35 points in his last three games, the latter of which saw him break a Pac-12 Tournament and Ute record with 11 3-pointers.Assuming the Utes can avoid an annual problem of losing players with eligibility remaining, they’ll go into next season with a ton of experience, as every returning player will have at least a year under their belts with Allen, Gach and Battin as juniors and Plummer the lone senior.Allen and Gach will need to work on their 3-point shooting, as they finished with abysmal percentages of 18.2 and 19.7, respectively, in Pac-12 play. Battin also tailed off dramatically late in the season and his shooting percentages of 41.8 and 33.0 from 3-point range were below his freshman numbers.Jones’ main goal may be to stay healthy after his bad luck all season, but he should be better at the point guard spot after showing flashes of brilliance this season. Plummer should be given a chance to crack the lineup after his fine play down the stretch — Krystkowiak admitted the JC transfer made him “look pretty silly” for not playing him more during the season — but he’ll have to beat out some talented newcomers to the program.Those players include two national top-75 players in 6-3 guard Ian Martinez of San Juan Capistrano, California, and 6-6 Caleb Lohner, who played at Wasatch Academy after growing up near Dallas, Texas. Also coming in is Pelle Larsson, a 6-5 guard from Sweden, and Mason Falslev, a 6-3 guard, who is slated to go on a church mission. The Utes will also have the services of Brendan Wenzel, a sharp-shooting 6-6 guard from San Antonio, who sat out as a redshirt and 7-4 Matt Van Komen (Pleasant Grove High), who played sparingly this year. The Utes will have another strong schedule, with road games at BYU and Missouri as well as a spot in one of the top preseason tournaments — the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, featuring the likes of Duke, Ohio State, Memphis, Texas A&M and West Virginia over Thanksgiving weekend. Utah will also have two more league games as the Pac-12 moves to a 20-game schedule.last_img