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Know Your non-conference opponent: Utah

The Utes have returned to national prominence, but can they stay at the top after losing some big pieces?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Utah vs Fresno State
Bonam and Kuzma are the pillars around which this Utes season will be built.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Utes have been a program on the rise the last five years, which feels like a bit of a weird sentence to read for college basketball fans of a certain age. After all, under the guidance of Rick Majerus, Utah was one of the top programs in the nation, only missing the NCAA tournament three times from 1991-2005, making five Sweet Sixteen appearances and the 1998 NCAA Tournament Final in that span. Once the big man was gone, though, the magic dried up and when Larry Kryskowiak walked through the door for Utah’s first season in the Pac-12, he had his work cut out for him.

Fast forward five seasons and the Utes are coming off of back to back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the end of the Majerus era, having made another Sweet Sixteen in the process. The Utes are back on the map, now the question becomes if they can stay there.

Coach/Style

Were I to put Utah’s style under Krystkowiak into a word it would be deliberate. Despite being branded the “Runnin’” Utes, Utah does very little runnin’ at all, typically ranking in the 300’s in tempo. They make up for slow pace with being brutally efficient on offense, sharing the ball extremely well and posting eFG% north of 55 the past two seasons, good for top 15 in the nation both times. They are not exactly stingy with the ball, but they don’t tend to chuck it around carelessly, either, and their ultra stingy defense of two seasons ago was undermined a bit last season when they stopped forcing turnovers (324th in the nation) and started giving up threes (opponents shot 37%), but the two seasons before that they had been exceptional on that side of the ball.

Departing Players

Now comes the bad news for Utah. Man mountain Jakob Poeltl left two years early to pursue his riches, and I don’t mean he transferred to Kentucky. At 7’0”, 248 he was Utah’s main physical presence and put up otherworldly numbers, going for 17.2/9.1/1.9 and connecting on 65% of his field goal attempts. Obviously losing an All-American is going to hurt, but they had other big time scorers, right? About that. Also gone is Jordan Loveridge, he of 11.6/3.8/1.7 on .392/.404/.792. The .392 part probably doesn’t bathe him in glory, but the fact of the matter is he was a huge asset because he could get 11 points per game while only using 17% of his team’s possessions. Fun fact: those guys were #’s 2 and 3 on the team in minutes. #1 was their point guard Brandon Taylor, who is also gone. Taylor got 9.7/2.3/3.9 and also chipped in 1.7 steals per game in the 32 minutes he averaged. He wasn’t much of a threat from the field, but excelled at the line and very rarely sent opponents there. In these three guys, Utah loses a bunch, but they also have some interesting players returning.

Returning Players

The headliners are obviously going to be the starters that are remaining from last season. 6’4” guard Lorenzo Bonam is a good place to start as he filled up the stat sheet last season by scoring the ball in a lot of ways and adding value on defense. Bonam went for 10.2/3.3/3.0 and was efficient with his shooting, going .513/.400/.815. Obviously there are worse places to start when rebuilding, and Bonam also added a steal per game and only accrued four fouls in a game three times all season. Also returning is 6’9” forward Kyle Kuzma, who was third on the team in scoring and chipped in 10.8/5.7/1.4 as a sophomore in the shadow of Poeltl. Despite his playing time sometimes being limited by fouls, Kuzma established himself as an interior scoring threat and a solid rebounder, while also showing a willingness to fire from long range, despite perhaps facing evidence that he really shouldn’t. Obviously, he will need to be the man down low this year for the Utes if they are to make it back to the NCAA tournament. Much will depend on Bonam and Kuzma because no one else who is returning got more than 7 minutes per game last season.

Incoming Players

The big piece will be 6’11” center Jayce Johnson, who should step in to Poeltl’s place immidiately. Johnson will also come in with a bit more seasoning than most freshmen, having been in the Utes program since December and redshirting the second half of last season. Johnson is a four star recruit, and is generally ranked among the top 15 centers in his class. Him hitting the ground running will be a major priority for Utah. Also bringing some size to the party will be 6’10” Tyler Rawson, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College, fresh off posting 18 and 11 in a NJCAA Championship win in March. Rawson comes in with a couple of seasons of lower level experience and a college basketball physique, but questions about how he will adapt to the PAC-12.

Another transfer, Jojo Zamora, will slot into the back court, having excelled at Yuba College, which also produced Vanderbilt standout Festus Ezeili, with 18.5 points per game and 4.0 assists per game. Zamora also brings a knack for outside shooting and a touch from the free throw line. Joining him hoping to help rebuild the backcourt will be Devon Daniels, a borderline three/four star recruit from Michigan who stands 6’5” and is known as a tough competitor. Daniels was recruited across the nation, settling on Utah over K State among others and will be relied on to hit the ground running in a depleted Utah back court.

Returning to the team after a two season LDS missionary stint is Parker Van Dyke who was stuck behind Taylor, Loveridge, and Delon Wright in his previous stint, but showed flashes of the scoring ability that propelled him to all-state honors in high school. Now as a 22 year old Sophomore, he has a shot at playing time this year and might provide a scoring punch off the bench.

Outlook

The players that left Utah after last season will not be easily replaced, and the Utes are being projected to not hit the heights of previous seasons this year. Still, there is reason to think that Krystkowiak has this program pointed in the right direction and, if they can keep the pace where they like it, they may surprise a few teams this year.