Bleeding Red: Future should be very bright for Runnin’ Utes basketball program

The season is over and is now done
Some games were lost, but most of them were won
It’s with plenty of pride I must confide
It certainly was a sweet (16) ride!

COMMENTARY — The dream is over and the Runnin’ Utes’ season has finally come to an end. However, Utah gave its fans plenty to cheer about along the way.

I often play the “What if …” game in my role as an attorney in helping my clients prepare a comprehensive estate plan. However, those “What if …” questions are always focused on planning for future contingencies, and there is little value in asking “What if …” questions about things that have already come and gone. I believe the same holds true in sports. While it is tempting to play the that game in lamenting a loss in what proved to be a very winnable game against Duke, I just don’t see any real value in doing so.

utesInstead, I am going to put on my crimson-colored glasses and revel in the success the Runnin’ Utes saw this season. A Sweet 16 appearance is worth celebrating and that is how I am going to remember this season. Back on Feb. 23, as the regular season was winding down, Coach Larry Krystkowiak presciently proposed, “I feel like we’ve got a chance, maybe, to do something this year that will be memorable for a lot of years to come.” He was right.

As thrilled as I am about the season that just ended, I can’t wait for what is yet to come. As I have mentioned before, this year’s team reminds me a lot of the 1996-97 Runnin’ Utes that made it to the Elite 8 in Keith Van Horn’s senior season. However, the next year they played even better and were the runners-up in the national championship game. I’m going out on a limb and call my shot right now — next year Utah is going back to the Final Four.

After Van Horn graduated, the other players all elevated their own games and played much better as a team. I think the same will hold true with the graduation of Delon Wright. Make no mistake, Wright and fellow graduating senior Dallin Bachynski will be missed. Nevertheless, the improved play of the other returning players, coupled with an influx of even more talent into the program, will make up for the loss of Wright and Bachynski.

One wildcard is whether Jacob Poeltl will return or make an early exit to turn pro. In particular, Poeltl flat outplayed fellow freshman phenom, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, in their head-to-head match-up last week.

 

FG

FT

PTS

REB

BLK

ASS

TO

PF

MIN

Jakob Poeltl

5-10

0-2

10

8

3

1

2

1

27

Jahlil Okafor

3-6

0-1

6

8

2

0

4

3

32

While the cold, sterile facts on paper indicate Poeltl had the better game, anyone who actually saw the game would have to admit that Poeltl had a much bigger impact on the overall game than Okafor.

Jakob Poeltl
Jakob Poeltl

Having said that, while Okafor is expected to go pro, I’m betting Poeltl will not. Okafor enrolled at Duke with a strong likelihood he would be one and done; not so with Poeltl, an Austria native who comes from a family that puts a strong emphasis on education. Even with Poeltl’s superior performance in their head-to-head match-up, Okafor is likely going to be a lottery pick, and Poeltl is not (although he could be a lottery pick next year after another strong season as a sophomore). Young Jakob still has a lot of room for improvement and could benefit greatly from another year of tutelage under Krystkowiak.

In any event, while the presence of Poeltl on Utah’s roster next year will have a significant impact on the success of the team, when all is said and done he is only one player in a continual carousel of players who come and go with no long-term presence. I’m more concerned about whether Krystkowiak will be around next year, and the year after that, and so on, to coach the Runnin’ Utes.

While Larry Krystkowiak’ s name is likely going to pop up for any significant college coaching vacancy this off-season, I’m betting he’ll stay put at Utah for the foreseeable future. Call it wishful thinking, call me naïve, or call me just plain stupid, but please allow me to attempt to explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

Coach Larry Krystkowiak
Coach Larry Krystkowiak

Let’s be honest, virtually any major college program that is looking for a head coach right now is likely going to be in at least rebuilding mode, if not in outright shambles. While Krystkowiak has been successful in rebuilding Utah’s program, why would he give up a team that promises to have a legitimate shot at a long NCAA Tournament run next year, and a pipeline that promises to produce talented teams for years to come, in order to start over somewhere else?

With a Pac-12 affiliation and the opportunity to compete for a national title through the NCAA Tournament, the Runnin’ Utes are currently poised to compete nationally at a high level. There’s no guarantee Krystkowiak could replicate such an opportunity anywhere else.

Can a high profile program offer Krystkowiak more money than Utah? Perhaps. Will that matter? Perhaps not. I’m not convinced that more money is that important to Krystkowiak, and I don’t think Krystkowiak is anxious to seek out the limelight in a big city.

Look at Krystkowiak’s background. He was born and raised in Montana and played basketball for the University of Montana. Admittedly, most NBA players are limited in their choices of a team, and many will play for whoever will give them a roster spot. Nevertheless, in Krystkowiak’s 10 seasons as an NBA player, seven of those were in smaller markets like San Antonio, Milwaukee and Utah. Even his coaching career has been focused on small markets — two years coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, a year coaching the Idaho Stampede (CBA), four years at Montana and one year at Old Dominion.

Utah is a good fit for Krystkowiak, and Krystkowiak is a good fit for the Runnin’ Utes. I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Here’s to a job well done by this year’s Runnin’ Utes, and here’s hoping the future is even brighter (including a nice, long tenure for Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak).

Dwayne Vance is a columnist covering the Utah Utes. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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