Youthful Utah aims to defy Pac-12 expectations
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Describing Utah as the youngest Pac-12 basketball team this season is no exaggeration.
The Utes return just two starters and three rotation players from a squad that finished third in the league a year ago. One senior and one junior are on the roster. The rest are a mix of freshmen and sophomores. Eleven players are newcomers to the program.
The group mirrors the teams that Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak coached in the school's early years in the Pac-12 that eventually blossomed into one of the league's top teams as those players matured.
"There's been obviously a lot of teaching, terminology, and I've always said it's hard to be a freshman," Krystkowiak said at the Pac-12 media day in early October. "It's a big adjustment for a lot of these kids. But it's an unbelievably hardworking group. Culturally, we're really dialed in."
It wasn't supposed to be a total rebuild for the Utes this season. That all changed when two starters, Jayce Johnson and Donnie Tillman, headlined a wave of players transferring out of the program over the spring and summer. Tillman went to UNLV for his last two years while Johnson joined Marquette for his final season.
Both upperclassmen were projected to be team leaders and key contributors heading into the 2019-20 season. Their unexpected departures caused Utah to hit the reset button.
"We're not mad," sophomore forward Timmy Allen said. "We're just embracing what we've got. We got some pieces that we think we can play with. It's going to be fun, man. These guys want to learn and they want to play hard."
The Utes find themselves in a familiar position as underdogs.
Utah was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll.
"I know for me, personally, when I'm (overlooked), I always get more motivated to prove some people wrong," freshman center Branden Carlson said. "That's our team as well. We want to go out and we want to prove to people that we are better than what they think we can be."
Allen is the top returning scorer and rebounder, averaging 12.2 points and 5.1 rebounds during his freshman campaign. He ultimately earned a spot on the Pac-12's All-Freshman team. Fellow sophomores Both Gach and Riley Battin give the Utes a pair of reliable outside shooters who should have much bigger roles in the offense. Battin shot 48% from the field a year ago, while Gach made field goals at a 47% clip.
A deep freshman class, headlined by point guard Rylan Jones, will give Krystkowiak flexibility for deciding on rotations. Jones is expected to compete for the starting point guard job. Big men Lahat Thioune and Matt Van Komen could see major minutes in the post.
Allen shaved 25 pounds off his frame heading into his sophomore season. He swore off junk food and turned to a plant-based diet to improve his nutrition. Allen also increased the frequency and length of his workouts.
These changes made an immediate impact. Allen has seen an improvement in his lateral movement and quickness. He can jump higher and step out from the basket further. Allen still has the physicality that was part of his game last season, but he is trying to take steps to expand his game beyond simply banging around in the post.
"I just wanted to be able to move more freely and get a little more bouncy," Allen said.
In an era of small ball, Utah's roster is a throwback to basketball teams that relied on size to gain an advantage. The Utes have five players 6-foot-9 or taller on their roster, including a pair of 7-footers. Carlson is 7-foot, while Van Komen is 7-foot-4. Redshirt freshman center Lahat Thioune, a Senegal native, is 6-foot-10.
The Utes will play in six neutral site games during the nonconference portion of the schedule. Utah will participate in the Myrtle Beach Invitational from Nov. 21 to Nov. 24. Games against Kentucky in Las Vegas and San Diego State in Los Angeles are on the slate in late December. Utah will also participate in the Beehive Classic for the third consecutive year when it faces Weber State on Dec. 14. That game will be part of a doubleheader that includes BYU and no. 17 Utah State at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the home court for the Utah Jazz.