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Utah basketball season preview: Utes bullish heading into COVID-hampered 2020-21 season

Utes went more than a week without practicing together recently, but remain undeterred

Utah Utes guard Alfonso Plummer (25), center, runs back up the court as the Utah bench celebrates Plummer’s eleventh 3-pointer during their game against the Oregon State Beavers during the first round of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Alfonso Plummer (25), center, runs back up court as the Utah bench celebrates Plummer’s 11th 3-pointer during game against Oregon State during the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic altered every aspect of the 2020-21 college sports seasons, it was another bumpy offseason for the University of Utah men’s basketball program.

First, mercurial sophomore guard Both Gach announced in May that he wasn’t returning to the program, a decision that was not unexpected considering Gach was never happy playing behind fast-rising point guard Rylan Jones. Gach landed at Minnesota, and last week was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, which is handing out waivers like Halloween candy.

Second, 7-foot-4 center Matt Komen entered the transfer portal before eventually landing at Saint Mary’s.

Third, prized recruit Caleb Lohner of central Utah’s Wasatch Academy asked out of the national letter of intent he signed with the Utes in November 2019, was granted a full release by Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, and ended up at rival BYU in late June.

Of course, that spate of bad news for the Utes was almost forgotten months later when it appeared the entire 2020-21 season was in jeopardy. But when a spark of positive news arrived and the Pac-12 gave clearance to play a limited number of nonconference games, the Utah coaching staff went to work. They cobbled together a schedule that originally included Dixie State (Wednesday), New Orleans (Friday), Idaho State (Dec. 8) and Utah Valley (Dec. 15), according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) and Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) react to a call during the game against the UCLA Bruins at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) and forward Timmy Allen (1) react to a call during the game against the UCLA Bruins at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

The Utes’ rivalry game at BYU stayed on the schedule and will still be played Dec. 12 in Provo.

However, the Dixie State and UNO games were canceled, so Utah will open its season against a conference opponent for the first time since the 1925-26 season when it opened with BYU in a Rocky Mountain Conference tilt. Utah will host Pac-12 foe Washington on Dec. 3 at the Huntsman Center, it announced Monday night.

A Utah basketball spokesperson had confirmed earlier Monday a CBS Sports report from Friday that basketball activities are paused “for the foreseeable future” due to positive tests and accompanying high contact tracing numbers.

The Utes did not practice as a team all last week, and were taking polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on Monday, said John Vu, Utah’s associate director of communications.

Monday night, Krystkowiak said on his weekly radio show that he recently tested positive for COVID-19, along with “the lion’s share” of eight players who share two houses. However, he remained hopeful that the Utes would be healthy enough to play Washington a week from Thursday.

Utah’s second Pac-12 game, part of the first year of the league’s expanded 20-game schedule, is at Arizona State on Dec. 22.

When the season does begin, Krystkowiak said during the Pac-12’s virtual media day on Nov. 12 that the Utes are “ready to take the next step” and challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth.

“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,” Krystkowiak said.

Junior forward Timmy Allen concurred, saying the team that was picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 race will surprise some people, just as it did two years ago when it was picked ninth and placed third.

“We know we have something to prove,” Allen said. “We know we’ve got the guys to do it.”

Key newcomers

Before Lohner bolted and Sky View High phenom Mason Falslev departed on a church mission, Utah’s 2021 recruiting class was considered the second-best in the Pac-12 and 30th in the nation. But expectations are still high for shooting guard Ian Martinez and combo guard Pelle Larsson.

Martinez, the 6-foot-3, 165-pound son of Utah assistant coach Henry Martinez, is ranked as high as 53rd in national rankings and a top-100 national recruit on some websites. He was the 11th-best prospect in California (Serra Catholic High), despite being sidelined part of his senior season by a hip pointer.

Originally from Costa Rica, Martinez averaged 23.9 points and the 7.8 rebounds per game his senior season. The Utes beat USC, Arizona and Ole Miss for his services.

Larsson, a 6-5 guard, hails from Nacka, Sweden, and was a four-star recruit according to 247Sports.com. He averaged 15.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists with the Swedish U18 team at the FIBA European Championships this summer.

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks to a referee during a game against the California Golden Bears at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.
Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks to a referee during a game against the California Golden Bears at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Key losses

The loss of the aforementioned Gach is significant, based on his contributions last season. But losing Van Komen, the former Pleasant Grove High star, is not as costly due to the emergence of another big man, Branden Carlson.

Van Komen saw action in just nine games as a freshman and never really made his way back into the rotation after falling ill early in the 2019-20 season.

Gach started in 25 of 27 games as a sophomore and was second on the team in scoring (10.7) while also averaging 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

Utah’s roster last year included just one senior, 6-9 forward Marc Reininger, a bit player.

Potential X-factor

Allen, a preseason All-Pac-12 pick, will probably lead the Utes in scoring again, after averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds last year. Allen’s 25 points and nine rebounds helped the Utes stun No. 6 Kentucky last season at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones, who made a big splash last year as a true freshman out of Olympus High, should lead the Utes in minutes played and will push for all-league honors.

But the Ute who could make the biggest difference this year, the X-factor, is 6-1 senior guard Alfonso Plummer, the only senior on the roster. A transfer from Arizona Western College, Plummer peaked at the end of the season, evidenced by his performance in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament when he broke the program, Pac-12 and tournament record with 11 3-pointers in the 71-69 loss to Oregon State that ended Utah’s season.

Plummer averaged 26.3 points and shot 60% from beyond the arc in his final three games of the season. If he can become more consistent, he will be a perfect complement to established stars Jones and Allen.

Other solid rotation players include forward Riley Battin, 7-foot sophomore center Carlson, 6-5 sophomore guard Jaxon Brenchley and 6-8 forward Mikael Jantunen of Helsinki, Finland.

Schedule challenges

Adversity has already hit the program, as detailed above, in regards to scheduling and the coronavirus pandemic that wreaked havoc on Utah’s football schedule and threatens to do the same to its basketball slate.

Krystkowiak was OK with the Utes being picked eighth by media members, saying he prefers to be the “arrow rather than the target, the bull’s-eye, I always have.”

The Utes’ first two-game road swing is a doozy, as they will play at UCLA and USC the week of Dec. 30 to Jan. 3. Krystkowiak said the Utes have been preparing for games without spectators, or a limited number of spectators.

“I guess there won’t be popcorn popping if we don’t have fans,” he said, regarding the atmosphere and ambience at the Huntsman Center, or lack thereof. “But we will be ready to play when the TV lights come on.”

Prediction

The loss of Gach may amount to addition by subtraction, in terms of team chemistry and cohesion, and the explosive Allen promised bigger and better things for the Utes in 2020-21, after they “definitely had some ups and downs last year,” Allen said.

We’re going to believe him. Utah has enough star power and a refocus on defense that bodes well for a turnaround season.

Predicting an overall win total is difficult in a pandemic, but assuming all 20 Pac-12 games are played, look for the Utes to go 13-7 and place fourth or better in the league, which should get them back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2016.