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Expectations are high for Utah basketball in 2014-15

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak the University of Utah defeats University of Washington 67-61in the first round of the PAC 12 men's basketball tournament Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak the University of Utah defeats University of Washington 67-61in the first round of the PAC 12 men's basketball tournament Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For a change, the Utah basketball team won’t be going into this season as one of the Pac-12’s doormats, expected to finish at or near the bottom of the league standings. Following last year’s 21-12 season with every starter back and a crop of promising newcomers, expectations are high for the Utes in 2014-15.

In fact, the Utes have been picked as high as second in the Pac-12 in some publications and even in the Top 25 (No. 20 by Sporting News).

However, any preseason hype doesn’t faze fourth-year coach Larry Krystkowiak or his players, who have ignored preseason predictions the past couple of years.

“Our approach hasn’t changed one bit,’’ Krystkowiak said Monday as he and some Ute players gathered at the Huntsman Center for Media Day. “There are preseason polls and we didn’t pay much attention to them when they picked us 12th. We’re certainly not going to think that is very important when we didn’t think it was before. We’ll continue on the same mission statement we’ve had since we’ve been here — trying to figure out a way to get better and challenge ourselves and make our team better.’’

Junior forward Jordan Loveridge says the Utes might be on opponents' radar more than a year ago, but doesn’t see much difference in his team’s approach.

“I don’t think the rankings mean too much early on,’’ he said. “We’re just trying to focus on finishing games and taking each game by itself.’’

Junior guard Brandon Taylor acknowledged that it’s hard not to notice some of the hype around his team, but tried to downplay it.

“At the end of the day expectations or polls don’t really matter, because we still have to go out there and prove it,’’ he said. “It’s going to be a great season and we have confidence all around the court.’’

Senior guard Delon Wright, who will be a top candidate for conference player of the year, never had to experience a down season at the U., and he has high hopes for this year.

“It’s crazy how far we’ve come,’’ he said. “That’s why I wanted to come here to be one of the top teams in the country and compete for a Pac-12 championship.’’

The three aforementioned players are expected to start again this year, and they should have plenty of help at all of the positions.

Junior Jeremy Olsen and senior Dallin Bachynski shared time at the center spot last year, but Krystkowiak said the two could see action at the same time this year and that a couple of newcomers will also see a lot of time at the 4 and 5 spots.

Those newcomers are Jakob Poeltl, a 7-foot, 235-punder from Austria, Kyle Kuzma, a 6-9 forward from Michigan, Brekkott Chapman, a 6-8 forward from Roy High School, and 6-7, 230-pound forward Chris Reyes, a transfer from Citrus College.

“It may be the first time we look like you’re supposed to look at the 5 and 4 spots,’’ Krystkowiak said. “We’re not playing undersized, and I think that can help us tremendously as far as rebounding goes, which had often times been our Achilles heel.’’

The other returning starter is 6-5 junior Dakarai Tucker, who averaged 6.8 points at a wing position last year. He’ll be pushed by sharp-shooting sophomore Kenneth Ogbe, while freshman Isaiah Wright out of Boise will be a backup point guard.

Krystkowiak said usually a couple of new players don’t come in as good as expected, but of his five newcomers, he said, “I can honestly say all five are ahead of where I thought they’d be. We don’t have anybody in the category of they have a long way to go.’’

The Utes have a much-improved schedule with a pair of potential top-10 opponents in Kansas and Wichita State along with San Diego State, UNLV and BYU all on the road.