It was an unexpected run, but the blue bloods of college basketball ensured it would end in the Sweet Sixteen. Friday night, Duke asserted their No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and took out Utah, ending the Runnin' Utes 2015 tournament run, 63-57.
At the beginning of the season, given the three-year progress of the Utah program, the expectation was an NCAA bid. Many teams never make it past the first week, but Utah took out their Round of 64 opponent Stephen F. Austin in a manner befitting a No. 5 seed, 57-50. While it was the dreaded 5/12 game, where tournament history suggests at least one five-seed would be upset, Utah avoided the drama and the resulting questions. It wasn't easy, by any means, and the Lumberjacks might have knocked off a lesser five-seed, but Utah played up to their seeding and moved on.
In the second round, the Runnin' Utes faced a higher seed, No. 4-seeded Georgetown of the Big East. Not a Power 5 school, but a team with plenty of basketball history and the swagger that comes from playing in the storied Big East. However, Utah dispatched the Hoyas in similar fashion 75-64. Then, Utah moved on to the Sweet Sixteen to face No. 1-seed Duke.
This time, the opponent proved to be a bit too much. Utah played valiantly and never gave up throughout the game, but early turnovers, a ton of missed shots, and sloppy play doomed the Utes. The Runnin' Utes finished with 15 turnovers, 12 combined by the starting five, leading to 16 Duke points.
Duke forward Justice Winslow led the Blue Devils with 21 points. Guard Tyus Jones scored 15 for Duke, most of it coming on free throws (9-of-10).
As a team the Utes finished the game shooting 21-of-60 (35 percent), well below their season average. From three-point range, Utah was worse, shooting 4-of-16 (25 percent). It wasn't until Brandon Taylor started hitting shots late in the game that Utah's perimeter game really got uncorked.
Taylor finished with 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting (3-of-7 from downtown). Taylor's running mate, senior Delon Wright had 10 points, six rebounds, two assists.
Perhaps the best game came from freshman Jakob Poeltl who shot 5-of-10 from the floor, scored 10 points, pulled down eight rebounds, and blocked three shots. The Austrian big man had an excellent tournament, shooting 17-of-23 in three games (73.9 percent). Poeltl finishes the season with 63 blocked shots, good for fifth all-time in a single season, just behind the likes of national player of the year, Andrew Bogut, Luke Nevill, and David Foster.
Utah's bench showed up to play Friday night, with senior Dallin Bachynski scoring 11 points and grabbing four boards. Freshman forward Brekkott Chapman pitched in with six points on 3-of-5 shooting.
So the 2015 NCAA Tournament run ends in the Sweet Sixteen. Seniors Bachynski and Wright depart the team, but there is a solid nucleus coming back for the 2015-2016 season, led by starters Taylor, small forward Jordan Loveridge, and Chris Reyes, as well as bench contributor guard/forward Dakarai Tucker. Freshmen 6-9 forward Kyle Kuzma and 6-8 forward Chapman will be expected to take another step forward in their development, and point guard Isaiah Wright will likely slip into the starting point guard role with Taylor as the under-sized shooting guard. I. Wright may even be a better pure passer than D. Wright, although the Utes will miss the California guard's versatility and defense.
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff have two incoming players in 6-5 shooting guard Gabe Bealer, from the same JC that produced D. Wright and 6-8 Granger High School power forward Makol Mawien. Mawien will provide depth along the four spot.
The big question in the off-season is whether or not Poeltl returns for his sophomore season. His performance in the tournament, especially helping hold potential No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Jahlil Okafor to six points, has increased the Austrian's draft stock. The lure of millions may be too much for a young player, but he can definitely use another season of seasoning, especially as more of the focal point of the offense. Poeltl could also use an entire off-season to work on his free throws.
But if Poeltl does choose the money over the free education, the 2015-2016 Runnin' Utes will be thin in the post. Jeremy Olsen (6-10) will be the only center on the roster, and the size advantage Utah enjoyed for much of the year will vanish. However, that does free up a scholarship which could be used on a Brendan Bailey (6-6 guard/forward from American Fork High School, recently decommited from Arizona State).
Regardless, Utah has a solid group returning, as well as a tournament experienced coaching staff. The expectations for next season might not be Sweet Sixteen, but, at this point in the Larry Krystkowiak era, who would be surprised?