Aside from actually playing basketball this season — something that isn’t a given in this coronavirus-cursed era — the University of Utah men’s hoops team has some ambitious goals for the upcoming season.
Sophomore Jaxon Brenchley shared a couple of them during a Zoom interview on Friday.
For one thing, the Utes want to make a serious run for a Pac-12 title, and they believe they have the talent and attitude to do just that.
They also have their eyes on a return to the NCAA Tournament, which hasn’t happened since 2016 and would require a big step forward from the mediocre results they’ve had the past two years.
“I definitely feel optimistic about it,” Brenchley said.
A week and a half into actual practices, that feeling is shared by Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
“Our guys are going to learn how to play hard,” he said. “You really can’t put your guard down against this roster.”
It certainly helps that they’re no longer the second-youngest team in the nation. With most of their key cogs back — aside from Minnesota-bound Both Gach — the Utes feel fortunate to have everything that guys like Timmy Allen, Rylan Jones, Branden Carlson, Riley Battin and Brenchley bring to the court.
So, in a way, they’ll look like a matured version of the 2019-20 Runnin’ Youths. That’s especially the case for Jones, whose offseason 15-pound weight gain has gotten quite a bit of publicity.
“Yeah, Rylan’s looking like a full-grown man now,” joked Carlson, a fellow sophomore who got married during the Utes’ down time.
Utah will also benefit from the addition of some newcomers, including 6-5 Swedish freshman guard Pelle Larsson and 6-3 freshman guard Ian Martinez. They bolster an already solid backcourt and give the Utes added athleticism and shooting.
“There’s a lot of bright spots on our team,” Krystkowiak said. “The key to success and the key to winning is putting enough of those performances together and being consistent. I’m optimistic. Nobody’s been a disappointment.”
When asked about whether his team’s identity will be one that models what he demands or one that will evolve depending on the players, Krystkowiak acknowledged that both will likely happen, while also pointing out three important phrases that the team has posted in big letters inside of the practice facility.
Play really hard.
Those are among the “certain non-negotiables” that Krystkowiak requires of his players, all of which he said will help them have each other’s back, nail down defensive rotations and connect offensively.
So far, so good.
“Those are going to be some things if we can consistently do, I think we’ll win a lot of basketball games,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re always going to expect them to take that part of our DNA.”
That’s made for some productive practices — and has even made the coaching staff reevaluate lineup combinations.
Krystkowiak shared one example of how his team has been teachable, too. During one practice, the players were playing hard and together, but they needed to be smarter about an excess of turnovers. The coach pulled what he called “an old coaching trick” out of his bag and lined up three basketballs on the sideline. One of the balls was taken away for every turnover, and the team was required to do conditioning drills once all three were removed.
The turnover problem was suddenly no longer an issue. Carlson said it was a “self-awareness thing.” They became extra careful with their ballhandling and passing to avoid extra conditioning.
“That’s worked miraculously here for a couple of days of practice,” Krystkowiak mused.
Krystkowiak also noted that he put together a group that he could envision being a potential starting five, but the second unit ended up beating the starters in four straight scrimmages. That speaks highly of Utah’s depth.
“It’s not really a big surprise in my eyes,” Brenchley said. “We’re all competing and show we have depth. It’s definitely fun on both sides. The depth is for sure showing in practice, more than last year.”
That bodes well for a team that doesn’t just want to be known as a bunch of young guys like last year.
“I think it’s going to be a good year for us. We all have our strengths,” Carlson said. “We don’t have so many new guys. We have some more athletic guys and more shooters. We should be a good team.”