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Utah basketball players should get to know each other very well with elongated practice schedule

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FILE: Members of the University of Utah men’s basketball program practice at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Coach Larry Krystkowiak said, right now, his team has divided its four hours of practice each week into an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays with an hour on Fridays.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Things are much different in college basketball than the old days of “Midnight Madness” when college teams would wait all fall until Oct. 15 when they could start practicing for a season that started less than a month later.

Before 2013, elite programs would make a big deal about the official start of practice, with some, like Kentucky, even filling arenas at the stroke of midnight on the 15th just to get their first glimpse of their beloved basketball teams.

In recent years, the NCAA relaxed those rules and now coaches are allowed to work with their teams for four hours a week when school starts and then full-time six weeks prior to the start of the season.

So with the Pac-12 not allowing any games until Jan. 1, 2021, that’s a lot of time for its basketball teams to practice for the upcoming season. By the time the season rolls around, Pac-12 basketball teams may have been practicing together for nearly five months.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak has enjoyed the NCAA changes of recent years that has allowed practice time to be spread out more.

“It was a good change — instead of nothing but conditioning and weights and then to start Oct. 15, giving you just three weeks to get prepared,” he said. “I thought that was more unhealthy because you felt you had to practice three hours a day and guys were getting worn out and injured. Shoot, you had a number of injuries on Midnight Madness because everybody was trying to get the maximum time in and you’d have these dunk contests where someone blow their ACL or Achilles or something.”

Like other programs, Ute players were able to work out on their own in the summertime after gyms were reopened and officially began practices with coaches when school started up again this month.

Now that classes have begun, albeit online, Krystkowiak said his team has divided its four hours into an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays with an hour on Fridays. The players are also allowed four hours of weight training per week. 

“The guys still have access to the gym and they can do plenty of things on their own. They don’t need the coaches in there to help them,” he said. “That’s what’s great about having a group that’s been around. They understand what we’re looking for and they conduct some skill workouts on their own. It’s been pretty good.”

The Utes have all their scholarship players back from last year except for Both Gach and Matt Van Komen, who transferred to Minnesota and Saint Mary’s, respectively.

Only one player hasn’t returned: freshman guard Pelle Larsson of Sweden, who has had problems with his visa since the embassy in Sweden is closed. 

“His family has been great, and they’re going to Germany where it’s legal and get a visa appointment,” Krystkowiak said. “He’ll be here early September assuming there aren’t any glitches, and then we’ll have our whole squad.”

“It’s kind of a holding pattern. Maybe we pivot, but we’re staying open under a lot of different scenarios. In this environment, things are subject to change.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak

Krystkowiak has good things to say about each of his returning players, which among scholarship players, consists of one senior, Alfonso Plummer; two juniors, Timmy Allen and Riley Battin; six sophomores, Rylan Jones, Jaxon Brenchley, Mikael Jantunen, Lahat Thioune, Brandon Carlson and transfer Jordan Kellier; and two freshmen, Brendan Wenzel and Ian Martinez. 

Recent signee Norbert Thelissen of the Netherlands will be on scholarship this year but won’t be eligible to play until the 2021-22 season.

Krystkowiak said Thioune and Jones “took the directive to get in the weight room” and that Thioune put on more than 20 pounds and is up to 240, while Jones put on 15 to 18 pounds and “doesn’t look like the same person,” according to his coach.

Allen is back after taking his name out of the NBA draft early-entry pool, and Krystkowiak said he and Battin are providing good leadership heading into their junior seasons.

“It’s a little bit of a new sensation to have so many familiar faces back,” he said. “Everybody’s working their tail off and smiling. It’s where they want to be, on the court doing their thing. It’s been a rough hiatus for a lot of guys, but they’re a great group and they’re all happy and doing well, and the coaching staff is ecstatic to be able to coach them and have them back.” 

Right now, the Utes are allowed to practice all fall, but that could change depending on what the NCAA decides at a Sept. 16 meeting when a vote on the season’s start date is scheduled to be made.

“It’s kind of a holding pattern,” said Krystkowiak. “Maybe we pivot, but we’re staying open under a lot of different scenarios. In this environment, things are subject to change.”

Krystkowiak likes to say that you only worry about the things you can control, so he and his team are making the best of the current situation.

“The guys just started school and everybody’s getting dialed in academically,” he said. “It’s good. Everybody missed each other, we did a lot of Zoom calls, we have a lot of camaraderie and just being together has been very uplifting to everybody.”