The 2014-15 Utah Runnin' Utes had a breakout season, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. They finished tied for second in the Pac-12. In the tournament, Utah made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 before ultimately falling to eventual national champion Duke, 63-57. A key cog in the resurgence of the Runnin' Utes basketball team was freshman center Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl hails from Vienna, Austria, a country not known for basketball. The 7-footer was an all-star for the Arkadia Traiskirchen Lions in the Austrian Bundesliga. He was also the captain for the U-18 Austrian national team at the 2013 European Championships prior to his arrival at Utah. It was at the 2013 U-18 European Championships that Poeltl first came onto Utah's radar. Poeltl chose Utah over offers from Arizona and Cal, largely based on the fact that Runnin' Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak made trips to Austria twice to visit Poeltl twice. The signs were there that Poeltl could be a special player, but Europeans, especially bigs, often take time to adjust to the physicality of the American game.
Poeltl was not even penciled in as a starter, having senior 7' center Dallin Bachynski and junior 6' 10" center Jeremy Olsen who had experience with the team as competition. It became clear very early in the season though how much talent Poeltl possesses, and he became the clear starter at the five position. In his first season at Utah, Poeltl averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 68.1% from the field. Poeltl finished first on the team in rebounds and blocks per game and field goal percentage and fourth in points and minutes per game. He was named to the Freshman All-Pac-12 team. Poeltl showed great leaping ability athleticism especially for his size, which helped him average almost two blocks per game. The biggest hole in Poeltl's game is his free throw shooting, where he finished at 44.4% on the season. He will also need to add some weight to his 7' 235 pound frame to battle more physical big men down low.
Poeltl scored a season-high 24 points in Utah's 90-53 blow out of North Dakota. He recorded seven blocks at San Diego State. In Utah's upset of then No. 8 Wichita State, Poeltl recorded a double-double 12 points and 11 rebounds to go along with three blocks. Poeltl played well against Duke's All-American center Jahlil Okafor, helping Utah to hold him to only six points and eight rebounds, his lowest point total in the NCAA Tournament. Poeltl scored in double figures in all three of Utah's NCAA Tournament games, including a game-high 18 points in Utah's 57-50 first round win over No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin.
Many NBA mock drafts had Poeltl as a potential lottery pick before he decided to forgo the NBA Draft and return to Utah for his sophomore season. With Poeltl returning for his sophomore season, fans have high expectations for the big Austrian and the Runnin' Utes in the 2015-16 season. Most way-too-early preseason polls have Utah in the top 25, and Utah looks poised to finish near the top of the Pac-12 again next season.
Do you agree, was Poeltl the most surprising player for the Runnin' Utes last season, or was it someone else, weigh in in the comments section.