Featured image courtesy KSL
by Max Westerman | In 1944, the Utah Utes won the NCAA tournament by two points knocking off Dartmouth 42-40 at Madison Square Garden. Back then, the Utes were called the Utah Redskins and there were only eight teams in the tournament. Utah was not invited to the tournament but their 22-4 record earned them an appearance by default after the Arkansas Razorbacks team bus crashed, injuring two players. 1944 was the first year the world witnessed a dunk which happened by accident thanks to Oklahoma A&M center Bob “Foothills” Kurland. In 1944, WWII raged, and people of color had not yet been allowed into the NBA. It wasn’t until 1947 that Utah Ute, Wataru Misaka, was drafted by the Knicks. He helped break the color barrier. Misaka was a key member of the 1944 Utah championship team.
Much has changed since 1944. Scoring has gone up thanks to the addition of the 3-point arc. The NBA now holds a slam dunk contest each year highlighting dunks that bear little resemblance to Bob “Foothills” Kurland’s accidental play from 1944. The NCAA Tournament now includes 68 teams and Wat Misaka lived to see it all passing away just last year at the ripe old age of 95. Despite the basketball’s evolution, and all of the changes Misaka witnessed, one thing remains the same: Utah has not been back to the mountain top.
In the 2019-2020 season, the Utah Utes did not experience the same success as the other major Utah Universities. The Utes finished in a three-way tie for eighth place in the Pac-12 at 16-15 overall. They were knocked out of the Pac-12 tournament in the first round in buzzer-beating fashion by 18-13 Oregon State, a team they had beaten in the regular season. In that final game, the Utes built a 14-point lead in the second half only to see the Beavers close the gap and win on a 3-point jumper. It came at the hands of bench point guard Jarod Lucas.
This was a surprise to head coach Larry Krystkowiak.
“I wasn’t ready to speak to our team at the end of the conference tournament,” Krystowiak said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen quite yet.”
Either way, the PAC-12 tournament was cancelled within the next few days due to the beginning of the pandemic.
Let’s look at the Utah’s season through a different lens. Despite the last season’s heartbreaking finish, there is a lot for this basketball program to look forward to. Last year, the Runnin’ Utes were the second-youngest team among the 353 Division I basketball schools. Let’s let that sink in. 15 of 17 players on the 2019-2020 roster were underclassmen yet they managed to finish the season above .500 in a tough conference. Eight of the nine top scorers from that team will be returning this season. That means heightened chemistry among teammates and a coaching staff more familiar with each player’s skillset. All PAC-12 wing, Timmy Allen, initially declared for the NBA draft but has since withdrawn his name. He is opting to dawn the Ute’s uniform for his junior season. Allen averaged 17.3 points per game last season and was Utah’s main contributor by a whopping 6.6 points. His leadership will no doubt prove invaluable for this young team.
The Utes’ will also be welcoming two four-star recruits in guards Ian Martinez out of Southern California and Pelle Larsson from Sweden. Jaxon Brenchley, who started six games last season and Alfonso Plummer, who dropped 35 on Oregon State in that final game, will help to fill the void left by Both Gach. Gach will be starting for the Minnesota Golden Gophers to begin the upcoming season after making the transfer to be closer to his family during the pandemic.
Three keys to University of Utah’s success:
1) The play of Rylan Jones
Jones was a true freshman last year and still managed to lead the team in steals, assists, and 3-point percentage. He started 28 games last season and is looking to build upon that experience. He put on an extra 15 pounds in the offseason which should bring added power to his game.
2) The forward play of Allen and Battin
This will be Allen and Battin’s third year as the returning starting forwards. Is this the year that things start to click? Despite leading the team in scoring last season, Allen wants more. He put in extra time in the gym this offseason to work on his three-point shot. Battin has improved his scoring each of his first two seasons and is hoping that this is his year he slides into a double-digit scoring average.
Last year, the Runnin’ Utes were ranked 207th overall in overall defensive efficiency. I’ve talked a lot in this article about scoring but the defensive effort will have to pick up. A lot of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of seven-foot center Branden Carlson. He blocked eight shots in two games last year and will have to provide a big presence down low.
The Ute’s were set to compete in the Crossover Classic which would’ve meant their first game as early as November 25th. The tournament would have provided an opportunity for Utah to prove themselves and get a couple meaningful non-conference wins. The tournament is set to be held in South Dakota and with COVID-19 cases on the rise and many South Dakotans ignoring Covid protocols, Utah opted to protect their players and withdraw. Their first game will be played on December 3rd where they will be matched up against the Washington Huskies.
To read the season preview for the Utah State Aggies, click here.