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‘Something you can’t pass up’: Fellow Scandinavian explains why Mikael Jantunen briefly left Utes for Finnish national team

Utah guard Pelle Larsson, who is from Sweden, says shorthanded Runnin’ Utes will be OK against Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on Saturday because other players will step up in the absence of Jantunen and, quite likely, injured guard Rylan Jones

Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) is introduced in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Utes won 79-65.
Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen is introduced in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Finnish forward has temporarily left the Utes so he can compete for his national team and will be unavailable for the Utes’ two-game swing to Oregon.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When University of Utah sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen faced his excruciatingly difficult decision last week, stay with the Runnin’ Utes or answer a call to join the Finnish national team for a EuroBasket 2022 qualifier or two, he sought the advice of a teammate who was most familiar with the situation he was in.

Fellow Scandinavian Pelle Larsson’s recommendation: Do it.

“I just think it is a great opportunity for him, something you can’t pass up,” Larsson said Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “I think he should definitely take the opportunity.”

Jantunen accepted the invitation, and left for Europe last Friday, a day before the shorthanded Utes lost 73-66 at Stanford to fall to 9-8 overall, 6-7 in Pac-12 play.

The big Finn will miss Utah’s game Thursday at Oregon State (10-10, 6-8), its game Saturday at Oregon, and quite likely the rematch with the Beavers on Monday in Salt Lake City.

“I think it is great for him,” Larsson said. “Making the European Championships is a big thing. … It is not every day you get to play in the European Championships as a Scandinavian team. And he is starting on that team, I am pretty sure, so that is a great honor for him.”

Because junior forward Riley Battin is a capable fill-in, having started 21 of 31 games as a freshman, 28 of 31 as a sophomore, and six of 17 this year, Utah can withstand the loss of Jantunen if Battin and fellow big man Branden Carlson can stay out of foul trouble.

“I mean, we have a lot of other good (players), too,” Larsson said. “Riley is a junior and he will do a great job stepping up, taking that role. I think we are going to be fine, honestly.”

Larsson, who is from Nacka, Sweden, said making one’s senior national team is a “major goal” for international players, especially those in lesser-populated Scandinavian countries who face long odds of making it to the European Championships, let alone the World Championships and/or Olympic Games.

“We had a lot of conversations about it. And (Jantunen) kinda felt bad, like he was letting the team down, especially because it is the last half of the season and a kinda tough stretch,” Larsson said. “So he kinda felt bad about that. But I told him we got it, and you gotta do what you gotta do. And when you come back here we will be an even better team because we will adjust to playing without you and then when we get you, it is just a boost. So I was very supportive.”

The Utes are shorthanded in the backcourt as well, because point guard Rylan Jones has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.

What is Jones’ condition?

Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) goes to the hoop during the game against the Idaho State Bengals at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson goes to the hoop during the game against Idaho State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“We are keeping that one pretty close to the vest, for a lot of reasons,” coach Larry Krystkowiak said Tuesday. “We will wait and see how he keeps responding (to treatment).”

With Jones out, Larsson, who is more of a combo guard at 6-foot-5, has handled the ball more than usual, which is fine with him. Senior Alfonso Plummer has started in Jones’ place. Larsson played 37 minutes and scored 11 points with three assists in the Utes’ win over California and had seven points and three assists in the loss at Stanford two days later.

“It has been fun,” Larsson said. “That’s what I like to do, and I get to do that a lot more. It is tough not having Rylan there, for not only his basketball ability, but his leadership. But it has been really fun for me.”

The personnel losses came just as the Utes were playing their best basketball of the season. Larsson said he definitely sees some improvement, particularly in the way the Utes compete for a 40 full minutes. As for his own game, he is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the top newcomers in the Pac-12.

“I’ve had some ups and downs,” he admitted. “Have had some trouble staying consistent through games, I am getting better at it and adjusting for every game that has been played. And obviously, I am getting a bigger role now that two of our main guys are out. But I like the challenge and I feel like I am ready for it.”

If it seems like the Utes have been on the road forever, that’s because it is true. Krystkowiak said this is the first time in his 10-year tenure at Utah that the squad has played four consecutive road games.

“It is a little reminiscent of the NBA days where you didn’t really get your shaving kit unpacked and you are ready to throw it back in the suitcase and leave again, so that’s a tad unusual. But I think in light of the year it is (par for the course),” he said. “You look around the conference and how we are squeezing games in and such, and it is not intolerable, it is just different.”

Oregon State-Utah matchups are always highlighted by the fact that Krystkowiak and Beavers coach Wayne Tinkle were college teammates at Montana and coached together at that Big Sky Conference school and are good friends.

The Beavers knocked Utah out of the Pac-12 Tournament last March, despite Utah guard Plummer making a tournament- and school-record 11 3-pointers.

Oregon State has dropped its last three games, all on the road, but is 5-2 in conference games at Gill Coliseum.

“Wayne and I were teammates, and we coached together, and have coached against each other for a long time, so there is no getting around having a relationship with the guy you are coaching against. You can’t get over that,” Krystkowiak said. “But I would say in the line of fire you are just kind of making plays and scrambling and so forth” and it is not a huge deal.