With expectations raised to a level the program hasn’t seen in years, it’s perhaps fitting that Utah’s first measuring stick comes against a longtime nemesis.
The No. 16 Utes look to end a string of frustrating results against San Diego State when the former conference rivals square off Monday night at the Huntsman Center.
Though do-it-all point guard Delon Wright is now in the NBA, Utah garnered its highest preseason ranking since entering 2000-01 at No. 13. The Utes are returning the next seven highest scorers from a squad that won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Much of the optimism revolves around sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, a projected lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft who didn’t disappoint in his 2015-16 debut. The 7-foot Austrian scored a career-high 26 points, shot 10 of 13 and added 11 rebounds and four blocks in Friday’s 82-71 win over Southern Utah.
Jordan Loveridge went 6 for 11 from 3-point range in a 24-point effort and Kyle Kuzma was 10 of 12 from the field while setting career highs with 23 points and 12 rebounds. All were positive signs for a team that’s relying on its strong depth to offset the loss of last season’s go-to player.
"That’s kind of the essence of the team," coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "I reminded our guys that we’ve got to, with this schedule of five games in nine nights, we’re going to need everybody on different nights."
Utah heads to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic beginning Thursday. First up is a San Diego State team it hasn’t beaten since the 2009 Mountain West tournament championship.
The Aztecs recorded a sixth straight series victory by outlasting the Utes 53-49 in San Diego on Nov. 18, with the score reflecting the defensive prowess both programs possessed last season.
San Diego State finished second in Division I in scoring defense at 53.9 points per game and yielded the third-fewest points per possession en route to a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip. The Aztecs opened this season with a similarly stingy effort, limiting Illinois State to 30.8 percent shooting and forcing 18 turnovers in Friday’s 71-60 victory over coach Steve Fisher’s alma mater.
Perhaps most encouraging was the performance of freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley. The four-star recruit had 20 points, offering hope he can become the consistent scorer the Aztecs often lacked last season.
"Oh man, great player," senior center Skylar Spencer said. "He’s real poised, always learning on the fly. Even though he’s a freshman he’s coming in to help lead this team. He’s doing exactly what we all expected him to do."
Krystkowiak wasn’t as pleased with his team’s defensive showing in the opener, as Southern Utah shot 50 percent and made 10 of 19 from 3 to stay within striking distance for much of the game.
"They confused us in the first half, certainly," he said. "We were getting beat off of back cuts, getting beat off the dribble and some things that were out of character."
With Poeltl anchoring the interior, the Utes held opponents to 41.3 percent shooting on 2-point attempts last season, the fifth-lowest mark in Division I. While the Aztecs were successful attacking the rim against Illinois State, they went 3 of 15 from beyond the arc.
San Diego State has won in its two visits to Salt Lake City, most recently recording a 71-62 victory Jan. 8, 2011 in Utah’s final Mountain West season.