Injuries and excused absences will help Runnin’ Utes build depth, could pay off in March
Utah played without injured sophomore guard Rylan Jones and Mikael Jantunen, who is in Europe playing for the Finnish national team, in Saturday’s 73-66 loss to Stanford, but expect both players back in a couple of weeks
Not having the services of 6-foot-8 Finnish forward Mikael Jantunen, who temporarily left the University of Utah men’s basketball team last Friday to play for his country’s national team in a EuroBasket 2022 qualifier against Switzerland this Friday in the country of Georgia, is going to seriously weaken the Utes.
That was evident Saturday night, as Utah, playing without Jantunen and sophomore point guard Rylan Jones, who was out with a shoulder injury, fell 73-66 to Stanford at Maples Pavilion in a game the Utes arguably could have won if they were at full strength. Utah had to go deep into its bench, and got just eight points — six from Thursday hero Ian Martinez and two from Lahat Thioune — from its non-starters.
But there could be a silver lining to Jantunen’s absence, the length of which not quite known. Players such as Thioune, Jaxon Brenchley and Jordan Kellier, who combined to play more than 20 minutes against the Cardinal, will get some much-needed development, even if it means more losses for the Utes.
“It wasn’t an easy decision and I never want to miss any (Utah) games. At the same time, I am going to play for my country and when they called saying they needed me, I felt like I had to go and I want to help us qualify for the (EuroBasket) tournament.” — Utah basketball player Mikael Jantunen
Besides, Utah (9-8, 6-7) was not going to get an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, with a NET ranking of 79 before the Stanford loss and 84 after it. The only hope of making the Big Dance is winning the Pac-12 Tournament, a not-impossible task if Jones and Jantunen are back in the lineup considering the conference doesn’t have any great teams this season.
Every team is vulnerable to an upset, or two. That’s evidenced by Colorado, with a NET ranking of 12 entering the game, losing 71-62 at California on Saturday night while the Utes were giving Stanford all it wanted on its home floor.
The league’s highest regarded team in the NET rankings is now Southern California, at 15. Colorado fell to 19 and Oregon is at 48.
When will Jantunen, who developed his game at the Helsinki Basketball Academy, return? Certainly, he will miss the Utes’ game Thursday at Oregon State and Saturday at Oregon.
It all depends on how Finland fares in the qualifier, which was supposed to be held last year but was moved to this month because of COVID-19 issues. EuroBasket, which is the European Championships, was supposed to be played this year, but has been moved to 2022 when the Tokyo Olympic Games were moved from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic.
If the Finns lose to the Swiss on Friday, Jantunen could be on a plane to Salt Lake City the next day, although there are questions regarding his immediate availability because of seven-day quarantining recommendations from the CDC, questions Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak did not want to get into after the Stanford loss.
“There have been a lot of discussions, and it just kind of came down to the wire with the direction that we went,” Krystkowiak said. Later, he said he didn’t want the issue to become a storyline for the Utes’ season, which was on the uptick with three straight wins before the rematch at Stanford.
If Finland defeats Switzerland and Georgia loses to Serbia, the Finns would be qualified and wouldn’t need to beat Georgia on Sunday (Feb. 21) to get in, so theoretically Jantunen could return to the Utes in time for their Feb. 22 game against Oregon State at the Huntsman Center, quarantine, jet lag and fatigue issues notwithstanding.
“It wasn’t an easy decision and I never want to miss any (Utah) games,” Jantunen said in a school news release. “At the same time, I am going to play for my country and when they called saying they needed me, I felt like I had to go and I want to help us qualify for the (EuroBasket) tournament.”
In Utah’s 76-75 win over Cal last Thursday, Jantunen was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line and had three rebounds and two assists in 30 minutes. A steady, but not spectacular player, he is averaging 7.3 points in 27.9 minutes per game. His field goal percentage of 65.5 leads the Pac-12.
“We didn’t go deeper into our bench than we normally go,” Krystkowiak said, referring to his routine of playing seven or eight guys, and not which specific guys played.
Utah has already lost one player with which it started the season; redshirt freshman guard Brendan Wenzel of San Antonio entered the transfer portal after the Christmas break.
Looking ahead, Utah could get Jantunen back before it hosts UCLA on Feb. 25 and USC on Feb. 27 at the Huntsman Center. Two postponed games against Arizona State have yet to be scheduled.
“I would say it is a ‘next man up’ mentality,” said junior forward Timmy Allen, who had 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists in the loss to the Cardinal. Allen is easily the Utes’ best player. A case could be made that Jantunen is their second-best, although Jones, freshman guard Pelle Larsson, sophomore center Branden Carlson and senior guard Alfonso Plummer have also shown the ability to be that guy as well.