SALT LAKE CITY — Eighteen years ago, the Deseret News published a story with a headline that read, “Why are they leaving U?,” documenting the large number of players who had left the basketball program under longtime Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus.
An average of three players left the University of Utah basketball program during the first 13 years of Majerus’ tenure, which lasted two more seasons after the story ran. At the time, that was a lot of players who weren’t sticking around the Ute program, significantly more than the national average. Majerus jettisoned several players, but the majority left because of unhappiness playing under the demanding coach.
A similar situation exists today with the Utah basketball program, which has seen a steady exodus of players under coach Larry Krystkowiak, the same rate as in the Majerus years, a little over three per year.
It has caused some consternation among some Ute boosters and fans who question Krystkowiak’s inability to keep players in the program. But is it a big deal that players are leaving or just par for the course these days in college basketball?
According to an NCAA study published earlier this year, the number of transfers at 350 Division I schools has been high, but remained steady for the past three years with 689 in 2017, 704 in 2018, and 694 in 2019. That’s an average of two per school per year.
Some of the Utah numbers are startling. Of the 34 players who have begun their careers as freshmen under Krystkowiak, only four have played all four years through their senior seasons. That short list includes Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge, Dakarai Tucker and Parker Van Dyke. Two have left early to play in the NBA (Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma) and eight are still in the program with the chance to play all four years (Timmy Allen, Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune, Branden Carlson, Brendan Wenzel, Jaxon Brenchley, Rylan Jones and Mikael Jantunen). Even if those eight become seniors, that would still be a little over a third of all freshmen who make it through four years.
The other 20 have departed early for a variety of reasons, either choosing to go elsewhere, getting shoved, gently or otherwise, out the door, mutually agreeing to move on, or having their careers ended by injury. There are also unusual reasons, such as the player who left because his girlfriend went to another school or the player who couldn’t physically handle Utah’s altitude and had to transfer to a sea-level school.
The Utes have also had a few JC transfers, grad transfers and transfers from other four-year schools move in and out of the program with 10 who finished and six who did not.
“It’s pretty commonplace and there’s a lot of different factors,” Krystkowiak said last week. “If it’s newsworthy then so be it. I’m choosing to focus on positive things and going from there.”
A year ago, the Utes lost four players during the offseason, including starters Jayce Johnson and Donnie Tillman as well as Charles Jones and Naseem Gaskin, the latter a redshirt.
Things seemed to stabilize this year when Utah sported the second-youngest team in America with 11 freshmen, five sophomores and a junior. However, a couple weeks after the season ended, the Utes lost third-string center Matt Van Komen, who eventually transferred to Saint Mary’s, and the following month, starter Both Gach chose to transfer back home to Minnesota. Then earlier this month, prized Ute recruit Caleb Lohner asked to be released from his Letter of Intent commitment and on Friday committed to BYU, where his father played. Utah gave Lohner his release 10 days after news broke about his change of heart.
Gach’s move was a blow to the program and a surprise to many, although one former teammate said Gach told him soon after the season ended he was leaving. Krystkowiak didn’t talk about it last week, but his official statement of Gach’s departure said, “Sometimes one’s individual desires and goals don’t always align with the program they are part of. However, our focus is and continues to be the players who are fully committed to our program.”
If you count just the last six years, the Utes have had 19 players leave, which is slightly less than two other Pac-12 programs, Washington State and Arizona State. According to Krystkowiak, three had injury issues, six were dismissed and the other 10 left for a variety of reasons.
Krystkowiak’s first real recruiting class was 2012, (we’ll give him a pass on his first class, a disparate bunch that was recruited late to replace several players who moved on from Jim Boylen’s program) and it has turned out to be his best overall class.
It included Taylor, Loveridge and Tucker, who each played four years. Other recruits from that season included Jarred DuBois, a grad transfer from Loyola Marymount, who led the team in scoring, Dallin Bachynski, who played three years total and Renan Lenz, who played two seasons. The only player from that class who left early was freshman Justin Seymour, who was apparently looking for more playing time. That’s six of seven who stayed through their senior seasons, a pretty good ratio and not surprisingly, many of those players played on Utah’s NCAA Tournament teams as juniors and seniors.
Since then, the Utes have had a harder time keeping players around.
Brekkott Chapman and Isaiah Wright both left after two seasons and went to play at lower-level schools. Brandon Miller and Makol Mawien departed after redshirt seasons. Devon Daniels, a promising freshman, left after some run-ins with the coach. Princeton Onwas, Ahmad Fields, Chris Reyes, Chris Seeley, Tim Coleman, Kolbe Caldwell, JoJo Zamora, Jakub Jokl, Vante Hendrix, Christian Popoola ... the list goes on.
There’s no doubt Krystkowiak is more of an old-school coach who isn’t about to coddle a player who has grown accustomed to being the center of attention all through high school and AAU ball.
“Some programs will hold you accountable and some won’t,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easier for these kids to jump ship and go check something else out.”
The Deseret News talked to three former players who played for Krystkowiak to get their views on why some players don’t stick around.
“Sometimes, it’s just delusion, they feel they expect more than what they’re getting and blame it on the coaches,” said one. “My mentality and my reaction, wasn’t to jump the ship, but just look myself in the mirror and try to beat this thing out.”
“Some dudes come into a program like Utah and realize everybody is just as good if not better than you,” said another. “You’re not handed anything and you have to earn every bit that you get and for some guys that’s hard and they can’t get over it. Then you have a few knuckleheads, and coach, he’s not one that’s going to baby and take people by the hand and bring them along. That’s just not the personality of coach.”
Krystkowiak acknowledged he has dismissed at least a half dozen players over the last six years because of their poor attitude or lack of effort on the basketball floor or in the classroom or for other reasons. He wouldn’t single out any particular players, saying, “I’ve always been ultra protective of all of our players and I’ve tried to take the high road.”
One ex-player stood up for his old coach.
“The sad thing is, with some guys, they’re really doing stupid stuff and get in trouble and people wonder why they transferred out because they showed so much potential,” he said. “He doesn’t throw them under the bus when he very easily could, but he takes a lot of heat in these scenarios.”
One could ask if perhaps Utah is making some poor decisions on the players it is bringing to the program if so many are asked to leave.
“You can use the analogy that a lot of marriages, about half, end in divorce,” Krystkowiak said. “When you’re standing at the altar getting ready to marry someone, you feel pretty damn sure it’s going to work out. (As a basketball coach) there’s some optimism you can help a kid. Some kids you know are higher risk and you’re going to have to really invest the time. But I feel 1,000 percent comfortable we have a staff and support staff where everybody wants these kids to succeed.”
Krystkowiak was always known as a tough, hard-nosed player as an All-American at the University of Montana as well as during a nine-year career in the NBA. He expects his players to play the same way.
“There are coaches who expect a lot and hold the bar high, I’m certainly more excessive,” he said. “That’s made very clear when we’re recruiting somebody. Work is not going to be done for you, you’re going to have to try. You’ve got all the support in the world; it’s not harder here than anywhere else. It’s called life and getting tough and sometimes it’s not easy.”
Sometimes his high expectations of players can hurt his team, which it probably did this past season when he was slow to play junior college transfer Alfonso Plummer because of his practice habits. Plummer didn’t play much until the final couple weeks of the season when he exploded for 35 points in the Pac-12 Tournament opener with a record 11 made 3-pointers. He came into that outing with games of 23 and 21 points.
One difference between Majerus and Krystkowiak was that Majerus was able to keep his best players around longer, guys like Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola and Drew Hansen, who all played four years. In Majerus’ first 13 years, 13 players, an average of one per season stayed through his senior season, compared to the four in nine under Krystkowiak.
Among those Majerus players who stuck it out was Britton Johnsen, who played on the 1998 Final Four team and was the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year in 2002 with a church mission in between.
Johnsen said it was very difficult playing for the demanding Majerus, but he never considered transferring.
“I can tell you why people were transferring from Majerus — heck I wanted to transfer from that guy,” he said. “It was hard for me and my brother, Jeff, at the U. But we never once discussed transferring. You knew things were tough and you just got through it.”
A common problem
Weber State coach Randy Rahe deals with transfers on a regular basis also, but on a slightly different level than Utah, as a mid-major school. Still there’s a common issue.
“Kids are very impatient these days,” Rahe said. “What we’ve found out is, it’s about playing time — kids want to go where they can play.”
“It’s a mentality, not only from players, but parents, high school coaches, AAU coaches, everybody,” added Johnsen. “It’s, ‘Hey, if they’re not treating you right, don’t fight it out, just leave.’”
That’s how former Utah basketball coach Ray Giacoletti, who is now an assistant coach at Saint Louis, feels about today’s athletes. In a Deseret News interview earlier this month, he talked about his frustrations with the frequency of transfers these days, one reason he’s looking forward to retirement.
“All we’ve done is enabled this generation to quit,” the 58-year-old said. “As soon as a player is successful, somebody’s going to pilfer them off the campus and they’ll go elsewhere. I struggle to see how that’s going to help anybody with their lives.”
Perhaps one consolation surrounding the Utah transfers is that only a couple have ended up going to a comparable program and having success.
Daniels, who started 26 of 29 games as a freshman in 2017, when he averaged 9.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, transferred to North Carolina State, where he has started 37 of 68 games for the Wolf Pack and averaged 11 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in two seasons.
Mawien played prep ball at Granger and was thought of as a raw talent with potential, but he left after his redshirt year in 2016 and went to New Mexico Junior College for one year before playing at Kansas State for three years. One former player believes the main reason he left was to get away from some bad influences where he grew up, rather than because of unhappiness at the U.
While Mawien didn’t have an outstanding career at KSU, he started nearly every game for the Wildcats the past three seasons and averaged 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds for his career.
Johnson, who was Utah’s starting center as a junior, left Utah apparently seeking a bigger role at Marquette, but he ended up averaging just 3.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in Milwaukee with just one start.
Tillman, who many fans had high hopes for after his first two seasons with the Utes, transferred to UNLV to be near family. But as a story in the Las Vegas Sun said, “His short time as a Runnin’ Rebel didn’t live up to the hype” as he endured a spotty season, averaging less than he did at Utah (10.1 ppg). Now he’s on the move again, heading to New Mexico State.
“All I’ve ever asked anybody to do is to try,” Krystkowiak said. “You know it’s not going to be as easy for some kids as it is for others but if you quit trying, then we’re not going to have you on our team. We’re not going to have all of this support system to try to help people to become successful and then not have you show up for classes or appointments. I’m not going to sell out just for guys because they’re talented, but they’re not interested in going to class. That’s not what the University of Utah is about.”
One thing’s for certain. For a program like Utah to succeed and get back to the NCAA Tournament, it needs to keep players until their junior or senior seasons. That’s what successful programs such as Villanova and Virginia have done to compete with the one-and-done programs like Duke and Kentucky. Time will tell if Krystkowiak is able to do that with his current talented crop of freshmen and sophomores.