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Utes are a 'Who's That?' of college basketball

SALT LAKE CITY — Northwest Nazarene — an obscure basketball program if ever there was one — visits the Huntsman Center Saturday in the Utes’ season opener. Don’t feel guilty if you have trouble figuring out which team is which.

The Crusaders, from Nampa, Idaho, play in the Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference. The 2016-17 Utes aren’t exactly famous, either. They have a player named Jakob, but it’s not Poeltl, last year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year. It’s actually Jakub Jokl, a 6-foot-11 forward from the Czech Republic. They have Kyle Kuzma, who started 35 games last year, and is the team’s most recognizable player. Lorenzo Bonam, who started 33 games, is also back, along with Gabe Bealer, who appeared in 16 games. Guards Sedrick Barefield and Jake Connor, and 7-foot center Jacye Johnson have been in the program, too, though behind the scenes. David Collette, a transfer from Utah State, was recruited out of high school by Larry Krystkowiak. Parker Van Dyke is off an LDS mission.

Thus the Ute coach says his roster isn’t a complete mystery.

“To be realistic about it, we do have players that have been in the program who we’re familiar with,” Krystkowiak said. “So I think from the outside maybe everybody is saying holy … you don’t know any of your players. I get that. But internally, I’ve got a pretty good feel for that.”

They may look familiar to the coach, but to everyone else, it may as well be the Village People. Gone are Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge, Brekkott Chapman, Isaiah Wright, Brandon Taylor, Dakarai Tucker and Kenneth Ogbe. Some graduated or went pro, others left seeking playing time. But even if Krystkowiak didn’t know a soul on the team, things could be worse. When he took over in 2011-12, the Utes were coming off a 13-18 season.

In his first year they went 6-25, including losses to UNC Asheville and Adams State. They lost eight consecutive games in the early season, eight more later in the year. Now in his sixth season, Krystkowiak’s teams have been to the NCAA Tournament twice in a row, making the Sweet 16 in 2015 and last year winning a first-round game.

“When I first started, it wasn’t just trying to get acclimated with the kids on the floor, it was trying to get myself acclimated with life in Salt Lake, so I don’t think anything can ever come close to how challenging it was then,” Krystkowiak said.

“It’s definitely a lot different now,” said Kuzma, although he wasn’t around for the 2011-12 season. “The talent level we have now, versus back then — which I heard wasn’t at a high level — but we’re just building chemistry right now.”

One commonality on both ends of Krystkowiak’s Utah career is that expectations are modest. The Utes in 2011 were picked to finish 12th and they exceeded expectations … barely. Their 3-15 conference record was good for 11th place.

This year, following the departure of most of last season’s tournament team, they are picked a modest eighth.

“Just rest assured we’ve got some guys that can play a little bit,” Krystkowiak said. “Hopefully we can exceed some of the expectations.”

Kyrstkowiak seems particularly high on Johnson, a redshirt freshman who can play forward and center.

“He’s a very intriguing player,” the coach said. “Not many 7-footers truly love the game. A lot of times big guys are playing because somebody told them they should be playing. But Jayce is extremely passionate about it. It’s never going to be an effort thing with him.”

So here comes the new (unfamiliar) face of Utah basketball: Kuzma, Bonam and some guys hard to recognize in a checkout line. Their early opponents are even more anonymous: Northwest Nazarene, Concordia, Coppin State, UC Riverside and Prairie View A&M.

Krystkowiak may know his players, but everyone else should bring a roster sheet. “Meet the team night” last month was never more apropos.

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