Recently, Runnin' Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak agreed to a five-year contract extension, and he'll be earning his money in the 2014-2015 season, one in which fan expectations may be the highest in six years. Coming off a 21-12 season in which Utah finished 9-9 in the Pac-12, their first overall winning record and first non-losing record in conference play, the Runnin' Utes welcome back several key starters, several highly regarded recruits, and will be expected to surpass the significant success of their previous season.
There has been a great deal of roster turnover in the Krystkowiak era, and this season the turnover has to yield a marked upgrade from previous years. Talented freshman Ahmad Fields left the program, along with 11-game starter Princeton Onwas, so the incoming talent has to prove to be an upgrade and everything the experts have been touting. Brekkott Chapman, ranked no. 12 in the 2014 recruiting class by ESPN, has to be a rebounding force and the inside/outside matchup problem we're expecting to make fans forget about Onwas. Chapman is a lefty, which can often present matchup problems in itself, but he's also a long 6-8, and, as the basketball axiom goes, you can't teach height. But the biggest upgrade will come in the form of Chapman's shooting touch from range and at the free throw line, places where Onwas struggled (.200 three-point shooting, .420 free throw shooting). Redshirt freshman Kyle Kuzma and Chris Reyes will be expected to make fans forget about promising freshman Ahmad Fields, who transferred in the offseason. Both players are taller, but both are expected to give the Utes more length and versatility. Kuzma looks to be the more accomplished scorer, but Reyes' 12 rebounds per game in junior college could provide immediate impact if he's able to average even half that at the major college level. Then there's the highly regarded Austrian 7-footer, Jakob Poeltl, who should give Utah quality depth along the front line, platooning with likely starter Dallin Bachynski and 6-10 Jeremy Olsen. Poeltl is the hardest newcomer to gauge, as it's never easy to project how stats earned in Europe will translate into the American game against top flight competition. Fortunately, all Poeltl will need to contribute this season is provide Bach some rest and utilize his length (2.3 blocks per game in the Bundesliga) to hold down the fort. And, from the wildcard file, it's probably best not to forget about a late signee in Jake Connor. The 6-3 guard out of Highland High School averaged 15 points per game and shot 45% from three-point range, the kind of consistent perimeter shooting the Utes could have used last season. And let's not forget the pedigree, as Connor is the son of Utah assistant Tommy Connor, not a shabby guard and shooter himself. If the incoming talent proves to be the upgrade fans expect, this could be the most talented and deep Utah team since 1998.
This past season, Utah finished in the lower half (7th) of the Pac-12 in three-point shooting at .351. A lack of a consistent outside threat, as well as players like Delon Wright and Princeton Onwas with decided lack of ability to nail the perimeter shot allowed opposing defenses to sag into the lane and play Wright, especially for the drive, limiting Utah's offensive options. Utah must develop a game-in and game-out perimeter threat which requires defenses to pull a man outside the three-point line and frees up some interior space for Jordan Loveridge, Bachynski, Olsen, and Poeltl. The obvious candidates are Dakarai Tucker and Brandon Taylor, but Kuzma and Chapman have the range and the size to shoot over defenses as well. However, Utah's offensive flow will be greatly improved in the coming season if Wright develops even a mid-range (12- to 20-foot) shooting touch. Then defenses will have to prepare for a 6-5 point guard who can drive to the rim, pull up and score, or drive and dish and won't be able to simply clog the lane for Utah's bigs.
On the glass, Utah finished again in the lower half of the conference (also 7th) in offensive rebounding, while on the other end of the court, the Utes often showed an inability, especially at critical junctures in tight games, to keep top teams Arizona, Cal, Arizona State, and UCLA off the offensive glass. To address this issue, the Utes added more length, talent, and athletic ability to the front line. Returning center Dallin Bachynski, especially, will be counted on to clean the glass like a high-rise window washer in his senior season. His development into the kind of consistent offensive and defensive post presence fans expected since his first season in a Utes uniform will be important to any post season aspirations. Bach has shown the ability to sporadically put up 20 and 10, but even a consistent 12-15 points and eight or nine rebounds would make Utah a formidable team, indeed. And if Bach and his front line teammates add some extra defensive rebounds, that could turn a few close road loss into a few more wins for the Utes, which leads me to my next point.
With the players Utah has returning, as well as the talented new comers, the minimum the Utes fanbase can expect would be a 20-win season. I'd say 25 wins would be the next step in the rise from six wins to 15 wins to 21 wins. Thirty-win seasons are rare, but this team, especially in an attrition weakened Pac-12, should be capable of 25. But making that next step involves something the Utes have struggled to do in the last three seasons under Krystkowiak, winning on the road. Utah clearly competed on the road both in conference and in the early non-conference portion of the schedule, but road wins were a rarity. Utah couldn't get over the hump in close road games in 2013-2014, leading to losses to Boise State, Washington, Washington State, Colorado, and Stanford. That is the key to 20-25 wins, finally being able to win the close games on the road. (It goes without saying that Utah must continue its developing dominance at home, where the Runnin' Utes recorded an 18-2 campaign in Salt Lake City last season. Pac-12 teams were served notice in 2013-2014 that the Jon M. Huntsman Center is no longer an inviting building.) Competing on the road, while at times frustrating, was enough for fans last season. In the upcoming season, Utah will be expected to get over that hump.
Thanks to steady improvement in the program, the Runnin' Utes first Pac-12 men's basketball championship is in sight. But I don't expect such an accomplishment this season, not just yet. While Utah is projected to be one of the top two to four teams in the conference (which, in itself, is an accomplishment, given how far out of contention the team was just three seasons ago), Utah may be even a season or two away from overcoming reigning champion Arizona. However, the Utes will contend for the title, and the road to the championship will be paved with bricks earned in Salt Lake City. It's been six long seasons since Utah last won a conference title, but given the downward spiral of the program in recent years, most fans will be more than happy with seriously contending. Utah may not win the Pac-12 championship in 2014-2015, but this season whoever does will have to go through the Utes. I expect the Utes, who finished just one game out of third and three games out of second in the Pac-12, to rise past scandal ridden Oregon, Arizona State (minus Jordan Bachynski and Jahii Carson), Cal (with a first-year coach), and Stanford (replacing six graduates, including Dwight Powell). That leaves the Utes in a dog fight at the top third of the conference along with Arizona, UCLA, and Colorado, two of which Utah beat in the Jon M. Huntsman Center last season. Utah will need a breakthrough, quality conference road win or two to record its first ever Pac-12 season above .500.
Post season play:
Now, while this may seem to go without saying, the NIT is not enough this time around. And, certainly, a first round flameout is not what fans are expecting, but first things first. Nothing short of an NCAA Tournament bid will be acceptable for this program that John Wilner of the San Jose Mercury has selected as a preseason Top 25 team. In order to the realize that goal, Utah will need to beat quality teams. Utah upgraded its schedule this coming season with BYU on the road (not a small task to beat the Cougs in the Marriott Center), a likely Top 25 Wichita State team, and Kansas (in Lawrence), so the candidates for quality wins are there in the non-conference portion. And Utah needs to prove they can beat the top Pac-12 teams on the road, as well as in the much friendlier Huntsman Center. A win over Arizona would be a nice statement to the tournament selection committee, and Utah fans will, undoubtedly, have the home date circled on their calendar.
Now, will a post-season berth also mean a run in the NCAA Tournament? Given an incremental season by season improvement, fans will probably be satisfied with a first-round victory. In a year where the NCAA Tournament will be the expectation, fans will be hoping Utah is not just happy to be there.
Each season since arriving for the 2011-2012 season, the success of Krystkowiak's teams has increased fan expectations. This season, the expectations are higher than ever in his tenure, and to meet them, Krystko and his staff will earn their paychecks.