If it was said once, it must have been said 352 times last year that the Utah basketball team was the second-youngest college team in America, ranking No. 352 among the 353 schools in Division I basketball.
The Utes fielded a squad of 11 freshmen and four sophomores to go with one junior college transfer and a walk-on senior. Although they didn’t use it as such, it was a built-in excuse for any struggles the Utes might have had with such a young bunch.
The youthful Utes were able to squeeze out a winning record of 16-15 with several highlights along the way, including a come-from-behind overtime win over BYU, a stunning upset of Kentucky in Las Vegas and big wins over USC and Colorado late in the season.
Now those players are a year older, although a couple have left the program and one went on a church mission.
According to coach Larry Krystkowiak and the players, there’s a huge difference between being a freshman and being a sophomore.
“I’ve always thought that the year between your freshman and sophomore season is oftentimes one of those breakthrough type of times,” Krystkowiak said. “We aren’t on that steep learning curve any more, we’ve got a really good understanding of what those returners can do.”
The four freshmen who played significant roles on last year’s team were point guard Rylan Jones and center Branden Carlson, who both started all season, as well as guard Jaxon Brenchley and forward Mikael Jantunen, who were two of the first players off the bench.
“Carlson and Jones and Miki and Jaxon — they seem like cagey old veterans even though they’re only sophomores,” said Krystkowiak, “They bring some of that moxie and familiarity to our team.”
Jones, who led the team in assists and 3-point shooting while averaging 9.6 ppg, says he sees a big difference since last year.
“When we all came in here last year as freshmen, there were so many of us and we had to learn so quickly we were super sped up,” he said. “This year into our sophomore season, we’re way more slowed down and in control, and you can already tell our chemistry is better and we can read each other.”
When a reporter asked Krystkowiak if he was worried about a “sophomore slump” for Jones, he quickly dismissed it.
“Rylan’s going to be ready to go. There’s going to be no sophomore slump involved,” he said. “He’s super stable out on the court, he makes you a better coach when he’s out doing his thing. ... We keep our fingers crossed he’s going to stay healthy and there’s even going to be a dramatic shift in his production if we can keep him healthy.”
So what happened to the other freshmen on last year’s team?
Lahat Thioune, who was a redshirt freshman last year, is back and expected to be the backup center behind Carlson again. He has put on more than 20 pounds and has impressed his coach, who said Thioune “had a terrific offseason.”
Brendan Wenzel, a 6-7, 212-pounder from Texas, redshirted last year, is known as a shooter and is expected to bring needed depth to the wing position.
Elias Ballstaedt, a 6-5 guard from Heber City, played in 12 games as a walk-on last year.
Luc Krystkowiak, a 6-4 guard, who is the coach’s son, also redshirted last season and returns.
Matt Van Komen, the 7-foot-4 center, transferred to Saint Mary’s, while walk-on Hunter Mecum didn’t return and guard Brandon Haddock went on a church mission.
TOUGH DRAW: The Crossover Classic, which the Utes will be participating in Nov. 25-27 in South Dakota, announced its pairings last week.
The tournament has one of the best fields of any college tournament this year with teams from most major conferences, including the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Atlantic 10, Big East and two from the AAC. Of the eight teams, six won at least 21 games last season.
At first glance, it might seem like the Utes received a nice draw, avoiding Ohio State, West Virginia, Texas A&M and Memphis on the other side of the bracket. The Utes play Creighton and the winner/loser of Dayton-Wichita State.
It turns out that Creighton is the highest-ranked team in the field, according to several preseason polls. The Bluejays are ranked No. 11 in Dick Vitale’s rankings, 11th in ESPN, 15 by Blue Ribbon, 16 by Andy Katz and 18 by Yahoo. West Virginia is the next highest ranked, followed by Ohio State and Memphis.
The Utes play Kyle Korver’s old school at 6 p.m. on the 25th at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. The tournament was originally scheduled to be played in the Bahamas as the Battle 4 Atlantis.