Five storylines to follow as Utah basketball opens practice
The Runnin’ Utes have nearly everybody back from last year’s team, which was one of the youngest in the country and are hoping to challenge in the Pac-12 in 2020-21
When we last saw the Utah basketball team, it was losing a heartbreaker to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, on a 3-point shot by a reserve guard with 1.8 seconds left in the game.
It was a tough way to end the Utes’ season, which, as it turned out, would have ended anyway, even with a win. That’s because it was the same March day Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus and all of college basketball was shut down the following day.
“It’s a little bit of a new sensation to have so many familiar faces back. They’re a great group and they’re all happy and doing well and the coaching staff is ecstatic to be able to coach them and have them back.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak
The Utes finished with a winning record of 16-15, made possible by an upset overtime win over Colorado the previous weekend as they finished in a tie for eighth in the Pac-12 standings.
It wasn’t a great record, but a decent finish for a team that started the season as the second-youngest team among the 353 Division I basketball schools.
Now the Utes are hoping for bigger things in 2020-21 with a veteran group that has nearly everyone back from last year along with some talented newcomers.
“It’s a little bit of a new sensation to have so many familiar faces back,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak, who had 11 freshmen and a JC transfer on last year’s roster and a young roster the year before. “They’re a great group and they’re all happy and doing well and the coaching staff is ecstatic to be able to coach them and have them back.”
The Utes lost a couple of players to transfers in the offseason, the most significant being Both Gach, a 6-6 guard who was a starter last year and part-time starter the year before. Gach decided to return home and play for Minnesota.
Otherwise, the Utes return their top eight scorers, including starters Timmy Allen, Rylan Jones, Branden Carlson and Riley Battin. Also back are Alfonso Plummer, the only senior on the team, Jaxon Brenchley, Mikael Jantunen and Lahat Thioune.
The Utes officially open practice Wednesday with the season expected to start Nov. 25, but the Pac-12 schedule has yet to be released.
Here’s a look at five storylines for the 2020-21 season:
How will last year’s fab freshmen step up in sophomore campaigns?
Last year, two true freshmen started 28 games and two more were key players off the bench while a redshirt freshman saw significant action.
Rylan Jones, the two-time Deseret News Mr. Basketball at Olympus High, led the team in assists, steals and 3-point percentage, while scoring just under 10 points per game. Jones battled injuries all year (knee, ankle, ribs, head), but has put on 15 pounds this year in an effort to get stronger.
Branden Carlson, the 7-foot center from Bingham, showed flashes of brilliance last season, twice blocking eight shots in a game and finishing fourth in the Pac-12 in blocked shots. He runs the floor well for a big man and has a good shooting touch.
Jaxon Brenchley shot 37.2% from 3-point range while starting a half dozen games, and Finnish forward Mikael Jantunen was second on the team in rebounding (4.5 rpg) and should increase his 23 minutes per game.
Another freshman from last year, center Lahat Thioune, has put on 20 pounds and will back up Carlson again this year.
Will third year be the charm for Timmy Allen and Riley Battin?
Allen and Battin have been the Utes’ starting forwards for two seasons — Allen starting 26 games as a freshman and all 31 games last year, while Battin started 49 games total his first two seasons — and both are expected starters again this year.
Allen looked dominant in nonconference play last season when he averaged 21 points per game, but his scoring dropped off in Pac-12 play when opponents keyed on him defensively. Allen has worked on his outside shooting and should continue to be a force inside, where he averaged 7.3 rebounds per game.
Battin averaged 6.4 ppg as a freshman and 7.8 ppg as a sophomore, but his coaches would be happy if he can become a double-digit scorer and improve his rebounding numbers (3.9 rpg in two years).
Can Alfonso Plummer pick up from where he left off last year?
After playing inconsistently throughout the season, the Puerto Rican guard had a record-setting performance in Utah’s final game in the Pac-12 Tournament when he sank 11 3-pointers and scored more than half of the Utes’ points with 35.
Until the final month of the season, Plummer didn’t have the confidence of coach Krystkowiak, who acknowledged he should have played Plummer more earlier, but was unhappy with some of his practice habits.
Plummer scored 16, 18, 23, 21 and 35 in five of his last six games and if he can provide a similar scoring punch at the off-guard position this year, it will make a big difference for the Utes offense.
Which newcomers will step up?
The Utes have three new scholarship players this year, Ian Martinez, a 6-3 guard from Southern California; Pelle Larsson, a 6-5 guard from Sweden; and Jordan Kellier, a 6-6 sophomore JC transfer from Williston State.
Martinez is known for his scoring ability and athleticism and has added some strength in the offseason. He’ll challenge Plummer for minutes at the off-guard position.
Larsson is a big guard who is versatile enough to play the point, while Kellier, who was a late addition after recruit Caleb Lohner unexpectedly broke his commitment in June, gives the Utes some needed depth at the wing position.
Can Utes get back to the postseason, preferably the NCAA Tournament?
Since his second season, Krystkowiak has had seven straight winning seasons, although just barely the past two years with marks of 17-14 and 16-15; however, the Utes haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 when they lost to Gonzaga in the second round, one of just two NCAA appearances, the other being a Sweet 16 spot the year before. They’ve also had three NIT appearances, including a second-place finish in 2018.
The Pac-12 is down a bit this year, so with a short season, the Utes will likely have to finish in the top four to make the NCAAs and in the top six to get back to the NIT.
Krystkowiak still has two years left on his contract, which was signed in 2015 under former athletic director Chris Hill, but a losing season this year could make current A.D. Mark Harlan think hard about considering a change.