The University of Utah’s play in this 2020-21 men’s basketball season has been disappointing so far, but freshman Pelle Larsson’s debut certainly hasn’t been.
The 6-foot-5 combo guard has played so well — at both ends of the floor — that he has broken into coach Larry Krystkowiak’s starting lineup, replacing senior Alfonso Plummer despite not yet possessing the type of offensive skills that Plummer has.
Krystkowiak has said he made the move before the Oregon game last week to get his best defensive players on the floor first. Riley Battin is also back in the starting lineup, replacing Branden Carlson.
For what it is worth, the Sweden-born Larsson is thrilled about it.
“I love it,” he told the Deseret News Wednesday as the Utes (4-5, 1-4) prepared to host Stanford (8-3, 4-1) at the Huntsman Center Thursday afternoon. Tipoff is at 3 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by ESPN2.
“Starting is always a goal,” Larsson said. “You want to be on the floor as much as you can, if that is starting the game or coming off the bench. I am fine with either as long as I get to see the floor as much as I can.”
Through nine games, Larsson is averaging 20 minutes per contest, shooting 48% from the field and 57% (8 of 14) from 3-point range. His 7.7 scoring average is fourth-highest on the team behind Timmy Allen (15.8), Plummer (13.2) and Mikael Jantunen (9.8).
Krystkowiak isn’t surprised that Larsson is making an immediate impact.
“So I thought with Pelle’s strength and his international experience … where he has been playing against men for a few years, and he’s got the physical presence and the strength, that he is going to be maybe a little bit more college ready than some other folks,” Krystkowiak said. “He likes contact and physicality. … I wouldn’t say he’s fearless, but he is not going to get intimidated by anybody.”
Larsson was outstanding in his first start, posting 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season-high 32 minutes in a 79-73 loss to Oregon at the Huntsman Center.
He struggled a bit two days later in a 65-58 loss to Colorado, committing three turnovers in 15 minutes and scoring just three points, but he did make a pretty lob pass to Carlson for an alley-oop dunk.
“He looks the part and he provides a little bit of a physical presence in the backcourt for us, which is needed,” Krystkowiak said. “He gets downhill, and he can withstand some contact. The other guys maybe get knocked off balance. He does a good job keeping his shoulders square to the basket and is pretty darn explosive. That is something we have seen recruiting him and certainly through the fall in our practices.”
Larsson’s father, Christian, played professionally in Sweden, while his brother, Vilgot, is a senior on Maine’s basketball team. Pelle Larsson is majoring in business at the U. and is “a really smart kid” who almost made a 4.0 grade-point-average his first semester, Krystkowiak said.
“It has been an up and down season,” Larsson said, when asked to describe his first campaign as a Ute. “We are still trying to put the pieces into the puzzle and we have played a lot of good teams, the top teams in the conference, and some of them are the top teams in the country, and we have been very close to beating them. So I think we are close to figuring it out, and when we do I think it will be great.”
Larsson, who speaks fluent English, having been taught the language in Swedish schools since he was 9, said he was attracted to Utah by the coaching staff and the fan support, so it is “weird playing without fans” during the pandemic.
“We definitely need to find other ways to get energy and hype ourselves up,” he said. “I am just trying to adjust my game to the U.S. and the game they play here.”
Having played the past two seasons against a mixture of professionals and amateurs with RIG Lulea and BC Lulea of the Swedish Basketball League, Larsson said the biggest adjustment to the U.S. college game is the spacing.
“The spacing in Europe, I feel like, is better and it’s not as crowded in the paint. When you drive, there are not sometimes four guys coming to block your shot, like here,” he said. “The college floor is just crowded.”
Larsson was also recruited by Stanford out of Nacka, Sweden, so Thursday’s game has some added significance for the freshman.
The Cardinal are tied with No. 17 Oregon for second place in the Pac-12 standings. Its only league loss was 73-56 to Oregon in Eugene. Stanford boasts the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week in Oscar da Silva, who is averaging 19.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Utah has defeated Stanford five straight times inside the Huntsman Center.
Judging by the mechanics alone, it's not hard to believe Pelle Larsson is shooting 53.8% from 3 and 95% from the line so far. He's probably a 2022 or 2023 guy, but he looks really good already as a freshman pic.twitter.com/00XSbYXb9K— Alessandro Cozzi (@AleCozz1) January 11, 2021
Carlson, who turned his ankle late in the loss to Colorado while attempting a follow dunk, said Wednesday the Utes still have a “positive mindset” despite their four-game losing streak.
Carlson said he “wholeheartedly” agrees with star forward Timmy Allen’s message Monday that the Utes are “right there” and will play better in the future.
“Just a matter of time before we have a breakthrough,” Carlson said.
As for his ankle, he said it is “feeling pretty good” and he believes he will be able to play Thursday with no limitations.