Krystkowiak trying to spark Utes in Pac-12 jump
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)
The candles in Larry Krystkowiak's office are hard to miss. A few are burning bright even in the light of day, serving as a calming presence for a man thrown into the fire of a flailing program that now must compete in the Pac-12 Conference.
''The preseason publications I've seen have us picked 12th to 10th,'' said Krystkowiak, who has more candles on his desk (five) than he has returning players (four) or starters (two). ''But it's all irrelevant to me.''
Krystkowiak, a former NBA power forward, is building.
He built a roster after six players abruptly left following Jim Boylen's firing in March.
He built some new bodies with a six-week conditioning program that had players wondering if they had gone out for the track team instead.
And he intends to build a fan base that had dwindled to the point where 15,000-seat Huntsman Arena was nearly empty at times during last season's 13-18 campaign.
''We're going to win some games we're not supposed to win,'' vowed Krystkowiak, who racked up a 42-20 record and two NCAA tournament appearances in his previous college coaching job at Montana (2004-2006).
But he wouldn't put a timetable on a turnaround at Utah.
''We're just going to try to do what we can to put a good product out there and hopefully it catches on and we're able to surprise people and fill up the arena and do a lot of other things,'' said Krystkowiak. ''But there are so many things first before we can think about any of (that). We're just kind of taking baby steps here.''
There's no question those steps start with 7-foot-3 center David Foster and 5-11 point guard Josh ''Jiggy'' Watkins -the only seniors and only starters back from a team that finished seventh last season in the Mountain West Conference.
Foster, who is on his third head coach, having played for Ray Giacoletti before Boylen, said he was surprised so many players transferred out. But he's happy with the four who stayed - the others being 6-10 center Jason Washburn and guard Chris Hines, who provided the buzzer-beater in last year's upset at New Mexico.
Though small in number, the four combined for 41 percent of Utah's scoring last season, 45 percent of its rebounds and 82.5 percent of the blocks.
''I thought more would stay,'' said a more vocal Foster, the tallest player in the Pac-12 and longest-tenured Ute at age 23. ''It's helped us grow closer together and helped us to lift the other guys up.''
The ''other'' guys Foster refers to include seven transfers, five freshmen and a returned missionary - all of which makes for plenty of competition and uncertainty.
Six-foot-7 wingman George Matthews, who signed with the Utes in November and honored his commitment after Krystkowiak was hired, is one of the most impressive freshmen.
He and 6-6 JC-transfer Dijon Farr may be the best candidates at small forward, while freshman Anthony Odunsi (6-3, 197) and junior Cedric Martin (6-4, 200) have been turning heads at No. 2 guard because of their defense and athleticism at both ends.
Utah native Blake Wilkinson, a 6-6 walk-on, brings some nastiness on the boards and will battle for playing time at strong forward with sophomore Javon Dawson (6-6, 266), who sat out last season at Gulf Coast Community College with a knee injury.
''Where we stack up with the rest of the competition kind of remains the million dollar question,'' Krystkowiak said of the Utes, who own a 146-114 all-time record against current Pac-12 teams. ''But right now, at this stage for our program, it's more important about building a foundation and doing things the right way.''
An early look reveals Krystkowiak's offense will feature plenty of movement and screens on and off the ball.
It's one reason for all that conditioning, which included countless miles of 150-yard sprints, Friday ''suicides'' and fitness tests that saw even Foster crack a 7-minute mile now that he's not bothered by nagging knee pain.
''This is one of the schools in the Pac-12 that plays at elevation,'' said Krystkowiak. ''I'd like guys to come in here and have a hard time catching their breath. But if we're having a hard time catching our breath, it doesn't do us much good.''
The outspoken Watkins, a former New York City prep star who Krystkowiak believes could be one of the Pac-12's top point guards if he is healthy and improves his conditioning, refuses to believe dismal preseason prognostications.
''Everybody says we're the last team, but we think we're one of the top teams in the conference,'' said Watkins, who averaged 14.5 points and 3.5 assists last season.
The Utes warm up with a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas before opening Pac-12 play New Year's Eve at Colorado.
''We don't have time to really get together, hold hands and make a team of ourselves,'' Washburn said. ''We got to do it on the fly.''
After heartbreaking results the past two seasons (27-35 overall), he likes the direction Krystkowiak is taking the program - which still ranks nationally as the 11th winningest all-time.
''He hasn't said much, but it's the fire in his eyes,'' Washburn said. ''He's ready. We're ready.''