Utah's long climb back toward respectability was aided by a strong finish to Larry Krystkowiak's sophomore year. Though the Utes finished with an overall losing record and still struggled at times in Pac-12 play, their mini-run in the conference tournament should give every Utah fan at least some optimism heading into the all important third year.
But what should fans expect in that third year?
This is a hard prediction to make because, unlike last season, the talent lost from the program will at least be somewhat significant. The Utes' ability to balance the losses of Jason Washburn's height, Cedric Martin's defense and Jarred DuBois' capacity to take over games will go along way toward making 2014 a successful year for Utah. If they can make those adjustments well enough, and actually improve on the flaws of the outgoing talent, the NIT should be an option.
Utah's success next season will certainly rely on the likes of Delon Wright, who is probably the most hyped player coming into the program. The fact he's already played some college ball certainly suggests he could step into the role better than Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge stepped into theirs as freshman.
It'll also be those latter two players, and their progress over the next few months, that helps define whether next year will be a success or not. Loveridge has the talent to be a special player and with one year under his belt, the hope is that he can really become the leader on this team - or at least enough of a leader where he's far more consistent than he was in 2013.
The addition of an improved Taylor, who really showed talent at times, would only solidify Utah's overall strength and shore up the talent that has exited from the program.
Overall, I'm confident next year's team will increase its win total. But that doesn't guarantee much of anything in terms of postseason play, especially if it's by only one or two victories.
One thing that dogged Utah this season was their preseason record. While it looked decent enough in December - the fact they finished 8-4 and had three losses to teams that finished with a losing conference record is pretty damning in retrospect. The losses to Sacramento State (finished 8-12 in the Big Sky), SMU (finished 5-11 in the C-USA) and Cal State Northridge (5-13 in the Big West) devastated the season, especially since two of those losses came at home. Had Utah won those three games and they're looking at an 18-15 record if everything else stays the same. That's good enough to push for a NIT berth and certainly would get 'em into the CBI, which, embarrassingly enough, passed on the Utes this season.
18 wins should have been a reality for this team and they came up short because they struggled with a preseason schedule that was almost universally built for victories. Next year's team cannot fall into the same traps of losing to bad opponents and this has been something that's plagued the program since Ray Giacoletti's second season.
We need to take advantage of the easier games. There is no excuse for the 2nd worst team in the Big Sky to come into our house and beat us like Northridge did. That is absolutely inexcusable and a bad loss. Now, granted, had that game been played at the end of the season, Utah probably wins and it's not even close. But that's the problem with preseason play - you don't have the luxury of growing into your role. It's also where some of the most important games take place because it lays the foundation for the season ahead.
Unless Utah finishes with a better than .500 record in the Pac-12 next season, their ability to grab a solid postseason tournament berth will almost universally be tied to the preseason. There, unlike this season, they can't stub their toes against the bad teams.
So, I expect an overall improvement in wins - but not necessarily a vast improvement in conference wins. Remember, Utah only saw a two-game increase in the Pac-12 this season compared to last. Where they did their damage was the preseason (8-4 instead of 3-10) and the conference tournament (2-1 instead of 0-1). That gives us a potential scenario next year where the Utes finish 7-11 in conference play, but possibly push 20 wins because of their preseason and conference tournament success.
That means my expectations for next year's Utes are the following:
- Beat the 'bad' teams in preseason play - especially when you're at home.
- Beat BYU. Utah hasn't defeated the Cougars in college basketball since the 2008-'09 season. That drought has to end next season...especially with BYU still in rebuild mode and the game happening in SLC.
- Win at least seven Pac-12 games. That's two more than this year and four more than last year's. Totally doable.
- Compete for the NIT. I won't say they should make the NIT, because it seems the selection is even more arbitrary than the NCAA Tournament (Air Force and Xavier were snubbed by the tournament and so was a 19-win UCLA team a couple years ago), but they should definitely be in position. This year they weren't. We knew the only two postseason options for Utah was either the NCAA (through winning the Pac-12 Tournament) or the CBI. Neither happened.