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Young Runnin' Utes hope to exceed expectations again after being picked 8th in Pac-12 basketball poll

Utah Utes guard Sedrick Barefield (0) talks with reporters during media day in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.
Utah Utes guard Sedrick Barefield (0) talks with reporters during media day in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SAN FRANCISCO — Over the years the Utah basketball team has made a habit of finishing higher than predicted in the preseason poll at Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day.

In six of the previous seven years, the Utes have exceeded the expectations of the Pac-12 preseason poll, including last year when the Utes finished third after being picked seventh. The year before, they were picked eighth and finished fourth. Only in 2014-15, when the Utes finished third after being picked second, have the Utes not done better than predicted.

So of course, Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak was not the least bit bothered to see his team picked for eighth place for the upcoming season, even though his team hasn’t finished that low in five years.

“I don’t mind, I’m comfortable being the arrow rather than the target,” he said Wednesday. “Past results are no indication of future performance so we don’t pay too much attention to it. Our guys are inspired and we’re going to stay humble and hungry and look forward to getting started.”

The two Ute players invited to the media day event also shrugged off the Utes' low placing.

“I don’t read into that stuff,” said senior guard Sedrick Barefield. “I know that as a team we’re underrated and always pretty much overlooked. We’re never placed where we should be. It’s motivating, but at the same time you can’t get caught up (in that) and just stick to the process and try to get better every day.”

“We want to go out and prove them wrong,” said junior center Jayce Johnson. “I like that we got a low ranking — it gives us a chance to prove ourselves.”

It’s not like there aren't reasons for the Utes to be picked so low this year in the 12-team conference. They lost four senior starters and return just five players who saw action last year. Nine newcomers have joined the program, several of whom will have to play this season.

“We’ve got a really solid freshman class, we’ve got basically one in every position one through five,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of these new faces playing. Our freshmen are capable to play and we’re excited about it ... a lot of teaching.”

The only returning starter is Barefield and senior guard Parker Van Dyke was a part-time starter. Also back is Johnson and sophomore forwards Donnie Tillman and Christian Popoola.

The nine newcomers are led by graduate transfer Novak Topalovic and junior college transfer Charles Jones Jr. from College of Southern Idaho. Center Brandon Morley joins the team after playing for Salt Lake Community College in 2016-17.

Six freshmen have joined the team — Timmy Allen, Naseem Gaskin, Both Gach, Kevin Kremer, Riley Battin and Lahat Thioune, while redshirt freshmen include Brooks King and Vante Hendrix.

Krystkowiak said Topalovic, a graduate transfer from Idaho State, Jones, a combo guard who was a junior college All-American, and Allen, a forward out of Phoenix, have stood out so far. He also praised Battin and Gach.

Oregon was picked to win the league title after receiving 16 of 25 first-place votes and 288 total points. UCLA was picked second, followed by Washington, Arizona, USC, Arizona State and Colorado. Picked behind Utah were Stanford, Oregon State, California and Washington State.

The annual Night With the Runnin’ Utes is Wednesday night with an exhibition game set for Nov. 1 against College of Idaho. The season opener will be Nov. 8 against Maine. The Utes also have road games against Minnesota and Kentucky, home games against Nevada and Tulsa. Plus, they'll play BYU in the Beehive Classic at Vivint Arena and will compete in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Fullerton, California.

Krystkowiak says his team upgraded its schedule with the NCAA tournament in mind and feels his program is ready for it.

“I feel like our program is established at this point, maybe young, but established and ready for it,” he said. “This is what we all signed up for. We made a plan to bump it up. Our players want to play elite competition and I think our fans want to watch elite competition. It’s a fine line — the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry if you can’t win some of those games. You can’t get marquee wins if you don’t play them.”

Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll

Team (first-place votes) Points

1. Oregon (16) 288

2. UCLA (6) 264

3. Washington (2) 249

4. Arizona (1) 205

5. USC 203

6. Arizona State 165

7. Colorado 161

8. Utah 122

9. Stanford 109

10. Oregon State 102

11. California 45

12. Washington State 37