When he learned for the first time Thursday around lunchtime during a video conference on Zoom that the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team has been picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 this season by the league’s media, Utes’ star Timmy Allen was more pleased than angry.

“I am not surprised,” said Allen, who was named to the Pac-12’s preseason media all-conference first team as part of the Pac-12 virtual media day. “They pick us around seven to nine every year. I think my freshman year they picked us ninth or something, and we finished third.”

Indeed, the Utes were picked eighth prior to the 2018-19 season, and surprised everyone but themselves. Last year, they were picked ninth and finished in a three-way tie for eighth, then lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament to Oregon State and ended the year with a 16-15 record.

Allen and coach Larry Krystkowiak see a better finish this year, because the Utes return about 86% of their scoring, according to Krystkowiak, and are more committed to playing tough defense, after inconsistency on that end of the floor cost them dearly last winter, particularly in road games.

“I am not surprised. They pick us around seven to nine every year. I think my freshman year they picked us ninth or something, and we finished third.” — Utah forward Timmy Allen

“I have been told that we (are picked) eighth and to me, I look at that, and I say, ‘Well that means our league must be awfully good,’” Krystkowiak said. “Because I like our squad. I like being the arrow rather than the target, the bull’s-eye, I always have. We will play with a little chip on our shoulder. I think our league is going to be darn good.”

Before they get to Pac-12 play, the Utes will play up to five nonconference games, beginning Nov. 25 against Dixie State, which is in its first year as a Division I men’s basketball program. The school has yet to make that matchup official.

Allen, who led his team in scoring (17.3 points per game) last year on his way to All-Pac-12 second-team honors, said the Utes are beyond using the low expectations from the media as motivation this season. It is an experienced bunch that draws its fuel from within, he said.

“It is nothing for us to talk about,” said the junior from Mesa, Arizona. “We know we have something to prove. We know we got the guys to do it. So we are not worried about that type of stuff.”

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Added Krystkowiak: “We are ultra-competitive in a practice situation. We will be ready to play when the TV lights come on.”

Like everyone else in college athletics, the Utes are worried about testing positive for COVID-19, knowing that one positive test could shut down the program for 14 days and force the cancellation of the Dixie State game. Allen and Krystkowiak both expressed sympathy for what the Utes’ football team is going through this month, having already had its game vs. Arizona last week canceled due to positive cases and contract tracing.

“It certainly has our attention,” Krystkowiak said. “… Months ago I told our guys that everybody they come in contact with, I want (them) to assume they have the virus. And I really feel like our guys have done a terrific job of isolating themselves and avoiding parties. … I am proud of our guys up to this point, knock on wood.”

Said Allen, describing the precautions the Utes are taking around their facility: “You are basically quarantining 24-7, daily testing. … You get caught without (a face covering) and somebody is on your head. The responsibility is on everyone’s shoulders. I try to do what I can.”

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All confidence aside, Allen said improving their standing in the league this year won’t be easy because the Pac-12 has improved since he was a freshman.

“A lot of returners are coming back,” he said. “Not as many (players) are leaving early for the draft. … Top to bottom, I think we are a great conference and it will be interesting to see where everybody lands.”

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak, left, talks to forward Timmy Allen during game against Minnesota at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

UCLA is picked to win the league, with Arizona State second, defending Pac-12 regular-season champion Oregon third and Stanford fourth.

“So I don’t care where they pick us,” Krystkowiak said. “Our goal is to punch our ticket to March Madness, and that is going to be our goal until somebody tells us we can’t be a part of it. So I am confident we can be real competitive in this conference.”

As for Allen, who was named to the 20-player Julius Erving Award Watch List, which goes to the top small forward in the country, he said he spent the offseason working on his leadership skills and his jump shot, which wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty his first two seasons at the Huntsman Center.

“I have worked hard trying to get the hitch out of my shot,” he said. “I just tried to become a more skilled player all the way around, especially with my shooting ability.”