University of Utah basketball player Riley Battin likes to use a baseball term when explaining why he entered the NCAA transfer portal a week after the Utes fired 10-year men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak, then returned to the team three days after Craig Smith was hired.
“I just wanted to have all my bases covered,” Battin told the Deseret News on Friday. “There was a lot of uncertainty with what was going to happen.”
And even though Battin enjoyed playing for Krystkowiak and was not happy to see him go, he believes Utah athletic director Mark Harlan hit a home run in bringing in Smith, the former Utah State coach.
“I just really believe in (Smith) and his staff, and I feel like the way he wants to run the program is the exact type of program I want to be a part of,” said the 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward who has been in the program for three seasons. “So it was really a no-brainer at that point.”
Battin said he reached out to Smith the day he was hired, “had a really good meeting” with him a few days later, and was almost immediately sure he wanted to return. He posted a video on Twitter saying, “UTAH, let’s run it back!”
“I think the biggest thing for coach Smith was he could tell that I wanted to be here,” Battin said. “Utah is where I want to be. He saw that pretty clearly when I was meeting with him. He could tell that I was all in. I think that is the biggest thing for him, just seeing that dedication and knowing that I am going to give it all I got.”
Seven Utes have entered the portal since the season ended with a 91-85 loss in double overtime to NCAA Tournament Elite 8 entrant USC on March 11. Guard Jordan Kellier and center Lahat Thioune entered the portal on March 16, but Thioune has since rejoined the team, like Battin.
As of Friday afternoon, Kellier, senior guard Alfonso Plummer, rising sophomore Ian Martinez and 2020 signee Norbert Thelissen of The Netherlands remained in the portal. Plummer will return to school and announced Saturday that he is headed to Illinois.
The best of the bunch, two-time All-Pac-12 performer Timmy Allen, has committed to Texas.
Battin, whose playing time and numbers dropped slightly from his sophomore season to junior season, said he hasn’t done much lobbying to get his former teammates to return, as he did. Martinez is viewed as a player who could really help in Smith’s transition, but the school dismissed his assistant coach father, Henry, when Krystkowiak was bought out for nearly $7 million.
“Ultimately, it just comes down to what they are looking for and their own choices,” Battin said. “I am always here if they want to ask me advice and stuff like that. I talked to Lahat a little bit because he wasn’t familiar with coach Smith, and he is back. … I mean, I am there for that.”
Another Utah standout whose name remains on the website roster, junior forward Mikael Jantunen, is somewhat of a mystery because rumors have flown for weeks that the native of Helsinki, Finland, will turn professional and join the Finnish National Team full time. Jantunen is not in the transfer portal, a source with access to the portal said.
Speaking of being in the portal, Battin was there for about a week and says he heard from a lot of schools around the country.
“There are a lot of coaches calling you,” he said. “A lot of them will come from schools that recruited you out of high school, and then there will be some new schools that watched you play in college and reached out as well. It is pretty crazy.”
Since landing the job on March 26, Smith has hired two assistant coaches (Eric Peterson and DeMarlo Slocum) and a director of basketball operations (Curran Walsh) and signed three players out of the portal: Cincinnati’s Gabe Madsen, UNLV’s David Jenkins Jr. and Utah State’s Rollie Worster.
Campus visits still aren’t allowed due to COVID-19, so the three players assumedly signed sight unseen.
“I have watched a lot of college basketball, so I am familiar with a couple of them,” Battin said. “So I know who they are and I think they are great additions to our team and will help us a lot.”
Battin was recruited heavily out of Oak Park, California, which is in the Los Angeles area, and was ranked a four-star recruit by ESPN.com. He signed with Utah after getting offers from several other Power Five programs.
He started in 21 of 31 games as a freshman and 28 of 31 as a sophomore, but only in nine of 25 as a junior as Jantunen and others got some of his minutes. In a way, the coaching switch should revitalize his career. He’s not sure yet if he will take the “extra year” being allowed by the NCAA due to the pandemic and return for a fifth season in 2022-23.
There have been too many other things to think about, he said.
“You know, it was just a crazy couple of weeks,” he said, recounting the days after Krystkowiak was fired. “I mean, nobody really knew what to expect, what was really going on. Coach (Krystkowiak) is a great guy and I had a great relationship with him over the past three years. But in this business, you just gotta move on and go with the flow.”
Especially after you’ve got all your bases covered.