There was a time last July when prospects for a decent season were looking bleak for the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team.

Both Gach, the Utes’ second-leading scorer in 2019-20, had transferred to Minnesota. Prized recruit Caleb Lohner had been released from his national letter of intent so he could eventually sign with BYU. And star rising junior Timmy Allen, easily the team’s leading scorer with a 17.3 average as sophomore, had put his name in for the pushed-back NBA draft.

But on July 9, Allen made the announcement that brought a smile to coach Larry Krystkowiak’s face, and some joy back to Uteville.

“There is not anybody on the team that cares more about winning than he does. The competitive spirit that he has, I think is pretty special.” — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak on junior forward Timmy Allen

“I am excited to let you guys know that I’m taking my name out of the 2020 NBA draft and I will be returning to campus to go to school and play next year,” Allen said via a social media video. “… I am excited to rep this red.”

If you don’t think that decision was significant, imagine where the up-and-down Utes would be this pandemic-altered season without their best player. They could be worse than 5-6 overall, 2-5 in the Pac-12 conference. Much worse.

During a season in which fellow captains Rylan Jones and Riley Battin are struggling to make shots and Utah has been pummeled on the glass, Allen has been sensational for the Utes, especially the past eight games after a slow start.

“Timmy is playing great,” sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen said Tuesday. “He has expanded his skillset; he can do everything on the court. He is playing really, really well and I am pretty sure this isn’t the best he will play, and he is going to get better and better.”

Allen and the Utes head back out on the road this week after going a disappointing 1-3 during their recent homestand, beginning Thursday night at Washington State (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network). With games at Washington (Sunday) and Colorado (Jan. 24) also on the horizon, the Utes have a good opportunity to win a Pac-12 road game for the first time since Feb. 23, 2019.

Utes on the air

Utah (5-6, 2-5)

at Washington State (9-4, 2-4)

Thursday, 8 p.m. MST

Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Washington

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: 700 AM

“We can’t take any team lightly,” Allen said after the 72-63 loss to California last Saturday. “We can’t get complacent, and we can’t get comfortable. We are not good enough to do that.”

Krystkowiak said nobody can accuse Allen of getting too comfortable. As the losses mount for a team that was buoyed when its star returned and was joined by promising freshmen Pelle Larsson and Ian Martinez, Allen is taking the setbacks harder than anyone on the team.

“There is not anybody on the team that cares more about winning than he does,” Krystkowiak said. “The competitive spirit that he has, I think is pretty special.”

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A preseason All-Pac-12 first team pick, Allen is not going to challenge for conference player of the year honors because Utah is not going to finish at the top of the standings. But he’s as valuable to his team as any player in the league.

Allen is fifth in the league in scoring (17.3), 15th in rebounding (5.8) and 15th in assists (3.4) per game.

Throw out a five-point performance against USC on Jan. 2, and Allen is playing as well as anybody in the league the past eight games. In seven of those eight games, the product of Mesa, Arizona’s Red Mountain High scored 18 or more points, including a season-high 26 against Cal. 

He has made 56 of 117 field goal attempts (47.9%) during that span.

Krystkowiak said it is a shame Allen hasn’t been able to enjoy his success, because the Utes aren’t finishing games, having blown double-digit leads in three of their last four outings.

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“I think it speaks volumes for Timmy’s game, to keep expanding it,” Krystkowiak said. “I have been super impressed with his defense, and I have been super impressed with his competitiveness in games. We have it printed all over our practice facility that it is a process, and I think he’s soaked up a lot of what an individual needs to do to take full advantage of that process, and it is not going unnoticed, obviously. He’s doing a great job.”

Protective mask hasn’t hampered forward Mikael Jantunen, but he’s almost ready to shelve it

Allen became the 40th Utah basketball player to reach 1,000 career points and the 21st Ute to reach that plateau as a junior in the loss to Oregon on Jan. 9. He’s currently at No. 35 on Utah’s all-time scoring list with 1,082 points, having recently passed Jason Washburn.

“I just know I am glad he is on our team,” Krystkowiak said Tuesday when asked how Allen’s game stacks up with the other top players in the Pac-12. “He is a tremendous two-way player. He has really grown, putting time in with his shooting. But he is also a very willing playmaker. … He is bringing leadership to our team, as one of our captains. He is competing. He just hasn’t given up.”

Or started looking ahead to professional basketball. For that, the struggling Utes are forever grateful.

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