Transferring triumphantly: Former Runnin’ Utes are mostly flourishing at new schools
Texas’ Timmy Allen, Arizona’s Pelle Larsson and Illinois’ Alfonso Plummer among the transfers who are playing for better teams, likely bound for NCAA Tournament
Last Saturday proved to be an eventful day for University of Utah men’s basketball fans, and not just because the Runnin’ Utes edged Cal 60-58to complete their first Pac-12 road sweep since 2019, the year Parker Van Dyke hit that buzzer-beating 3-pointer to down UCLA.
In the morning and early afternoon, former Utes Alfonso Plummer and Timmy Allen were shining on national television for now No. 15 Illinois (ESPN) and No. 20 Texas (ABC), respectively, while that night ex-Ute Pelle Larsson played a role in No. 2 Arizona’s 84-81 win over Oregon in one of the most entertaining college basketball games of the season to date.
All three games were played in front of packed houses, a far cry from what the Utes experienced in games at Stanford and Cal last week, or what they’ve seen at home this season, with the exception of the BYU game.
“I don’t think about that stuff, quite frankly. I learned a long time ago that you gotta control what you can control, and I just have never been wired that way. This is where we are, this is what we are going to handle, and this is who we are going to move forward with.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
Saturday afternoon, ex-Ute Rylan Jones scored six points and had three assists before fouling out in Utah State’s 68-57 loss at Boise State in front of 10,252 fans at ExtraMile Arena. The night before, former Ute Ian Martinez scored 10 points in 17 minutes during Maryland’s 90-74 win at Nebraska in a clash between two of the three worst teams in the Big Ten.
In Europe, former Ute Mikael Jantunen, who turned pro despite having a couple more years of college eligibility left, is flourishing with B.C. Oostende, a Belgian professional team that competes in the BNXT League and internationally in the Basketball Champions League.
As has been well documented by the Deseret News and other publications, six key contributors from last year’s Runnin’ Utes team either transferred or turned pro following the 2020-21 season. Some left before coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired, others departed after, seeking a fresh start, more playing time, or in the cases of Allen, Plummer, Martinez and Larsson, the opportunity to play for more high-profile programs in more frenzied environments.
Two other ex-Utes who were on the Utah roster when the 2020-21 season began, 6-foot-6 guard Jordan Kellier and redshirt guard Brendan Wenzel, are also still playing collegiately. Kellier is averaging 4.2 points per game at Siena College in New York, while Wenzel, who left the program shortly after Christmas in 2020, is averaging 5.5 points per game at 22-4 Wyoming, currently in second place in the Mountain West.
In a lot of cases, transfers usually don’t result in better situations for the departing players, but one would be hard-pressed to get one of the eight former Utes to say he regrets making the move.
Nor is it easy to get any of the Utes who stayed when Craig Smith replaced Krystkowiak in late March to grumble about their current situations. Centers Branden Carlson and Lahat Thioune, forward Riley Battin and guard Jaxon Brenchley appear to be doing just fine, although the latter three aren’t playing as much as they have in the past.
Where are they now?
Timmy Allen — Texas
Ian Martinez — Maryland
Pelle Larsson — Arizona
Alfonso Plummer — Illinois
Rylan Jones — Utah State
Mikael Jantunen — B.C. Oostende (Belgian pro team)
Jordan Kellier — Siena
Brendan Wenzel — Wyoming
Carlson, who was widely viewed as the most important player for Smith to keep in the fold last spring, said he communicated with the guys who left “every once in a while” over the summer, but not so much now that their seasons are well underway.
“I am just worried about my season right now, and our team,” Carlson said. “We’re not talking to those guys too much at the moment.”
With Allen leading the team in minutes (35.2), scoring (17.2) and rebounding (6.4), the Utes went 12-13 overall, 8-11 in the Pac-12, and made it to the conference tournament quarterfinals before falling 91-85 to USC in double overtime. The talent was there, but that particular group probably underachieved — having Jantunen and Jones miss extended games due to international team play (Jantunen) or injury (Jones) certainly didn’t help the situation. Also, the Pac-12 turned out to be really good last year, evidenced by how well it did in the Big Dance.
For instance, the USC team that edged the Utes in Las Vegas made it all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to national runner-up Gonzaga. The UCLA team that advanced to the Final Four edged the Utes 72-70 at home on Dec. 31, 2020.
Before the Utes (11-16, 4-13) won three of their last five games and snapped their program-record 10-game losing streak, the Deseret News asked Smith if he ever allows himself to wonder what might have been if Allen or Plummer or Larsson or Martinez or Jones or Jantunen, or any or all of the above, had stayed in the program.
“That’s more than a fair question. At the end of the day we lost a guy to Arizona, a guy to Maryland, a guy to Illinois, a guy to Texas, a guy to Utah State, and a guy turned pro,” Smith said. “Obviously it has worked out for those guys, or most of them.”
Smith said he got to know Jones and Larsson a little bit after he was hired, but the other four were already in the transfer portal. Jones and Larsson did some individual workouts with Smith and some of the assistants he hired shortly after getting the job, but obviously chose to move on.
Larsson’s Arizona team visits the Huntsman Center on Thursday (9 p.m. MST, Fox Sports 1) on an eight-game winning streak.
“I don’t think about that stuff, quite frankly,” Smith said. “I learned a long time ago that you gotta control what you can control, and I just have never been wired that way.
“This is where we are, this is what we are going to handle, and this is who we are going to move forward with,” he continued. “Like I have said, our margin for error was relatively thin in the first place. We haven’t had some things go our way. But I am more excited than ever about this team, and the direction that we are trending towards.”
Carlson and Brenchley — two of the four native Utahns on this year’s team (walk-ons Eli Ballstaedt of Heber City and Harrison Creer of Holladay are the others) — never entered the transfer portal after Krystkowiak was let go. Thioune and Battin entered the portal, but chose to return.
Here’s a closer look at how the five significant contributors who left for other college programs are doing:
Timmy Allen — Texas
Utah’s best player in 2020-21 is now the Longhorns’ best all-around player in 2021-22, according to several publications that cover Big 12 basketball.
After averaging 15.6 points, 6-3 rebounds and 3.1 assists in a solid three-year career at Utah, Allen’s numbers are down a bit, but the team for which he plays is significantly better.
Allen has started all 27 of Texas’ games, and is averaging 27.9 minutes, third-most on the team. He leads the squad in scoring (11.7 ppg.), rebounding (6.4 rpg.) and steals (32).
Of the seven transfers on Texas’ roster this year, Allen has made the biggest impact, according to the Dallas Morning News. The No. 20-ranked Longhorns are 19-8 overall, 8-6 in the Big 12 heading into Wednesday’s game against TCU at the Erwin Center in Austin.
A native of Mesa, Arizona, Allen had 18 points and six rebounds in a loss to then-No. 1 Gonzaga in November. He recently had 17 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Kansas State.
Alfonso Plummer — Illinois
Folks who tuned into then-No. 12 Illinois’ 79-74 win over Michigan State on Saturday saw the flashy Plummer do what he does best — shoot without a conscience from 3-point range, and look unconscious, at times. The native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, is listed as a graduate student on the Fighting Illini’s roster.
Plummer has started in 22 of 26 games, and has logged the second-most minutes on the team, 30.4. His defense was a liability at Utah, but doesn’t seem to be keeping him off the floor in the Big Ten.
Plummer is averaging 14.7 points a game while shooting 39.2% from 3-point range. He’s made 74 triples, 20 more than anyone else on the team.
Illinois is 19-7 overall, 12-4 in the Big Ten heading into Thursday’s game at Ohio State and is a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament with a NET ranking of 14.
Plummer spent two years at Utah, and was known for setting a Pac-12 conference tournament record with 11 3-pointers in a 2020 game in Las Vegas before COVID-19 shut down the event. Last year, he averaged 13.6 points per game, but occasionally found himself in Krystkowiak’s doghouse for his defense and questionable shot selection.
He announced he was transferring on April 15, and had Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Texas Tech and BYU in his top five before eventually choosing to play his last season in Champaign-Urbana.
Pelle Larsson — Arizona
Larsson entered the transfer portal relatively late in the process, on April 30 last year, and said at the time that he was still considering staying at Utah. But that all changed on May 9, when he announced he was staying in the Pac-12, but headed to college basketball blue blood Arizona.
Given his upside as a 6-foot-5 combo guard out of Sweden who broke into Utah’s starting lineup as a freshman and started in 18 of the Utes’ 25 games, Larsson could be viewed as the biggest loss of the bunch.
Larsson, whose brother Vilgot played for Maine, also heavily considered Kansas, Creighton and Stanford.
Arizona’s sports information department was not able to facilitate a Deseret News request to interview Larsson before press time for this article, citing time constraints due to travel, practice time and Larsson’s class schedule.
Larsson averaged 8.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Utes. He has appeared in 25 games for Arizona, started in two, and is averaging 7.0 points and 1.8 assists in 21.4 minutes per game for the Pac-12’s first-place team.
Ian Martinez — Maryland
Martinez’s decision to leave after one mercurial season was also a blow to Utah’s future Pac-12 hopes. A four-star recruit from Costa Rica, by way of JSerra Catholic in Southern California, he was considered by some the most highly rated recruit in program history.
The 6-foot-3 guard blossomed later in the season, and was averaging 5.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 15.8 minutes per game when he decided to leave. His decision came a couple weeks after he scored a career-high 18 points in Utah’s loss to USC in the Pac-12 tournament.
On the same day that Utah announced the transfer of Marco Anthony from USU to Utah, April 20, Martinez announced he had committed to Maryland. Martinez’s father, Henry, was an assistant on Krystkowiak’s staff, but not retained by Smith.
At Maryland, Martinez has appeared in 22 games and started one. He is averaging 3.2 points in 13.8 minutes per game.
Rylan Jones — Utah State
An Olympus High product whose father, Chris, was also on Krystkowiak’s staff, Jones appeared to be headed for great things at Utah when he was just one of five freshmen in the country to average more than 9.5 points, 4.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game in 2019-20.
A shoulder injury cut into his playing time as a sophomore, but over the course of two seasons he appeared in 45 games for the Utes, starting in 43. He left SLC with a 7.6 career scoring average.
Why did he leave?
“I thought about it for a long time, and it just kinda came to me that I should go back to the place I would consider my hometown, and it just felt right,” Jones told the Deseret News in June, noting that he grew up in Logan when his father assisted at USU, and played at Logan High his freshman year before transferring to Olympus.
Jones has started in 18 games and appeared in 25 for the 15-13 Aggies, who are 6-9 in the Mountain West. He is averaging 28.3 minutes per game, while scoring at a 7.4 clip. He had 19 points in a 71-69 loss to Wyoming on Jan. 15 at the Spectrum in front of a crowd of 8,109.