S. Utah-Utah Preview
(AP) - The rebuilding of the Utah basketball program was a slow process that looks to be past the arduous climb. The Utes reached the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in five seasons.
The challenge is to build off the run to the Sweet 16 without Mr. Do Everything Delon Wright, who led the team in points, assists, steals and minutes before being drafted No. 20 overall by the Toronto Raptors. The 16th-ranked Utes open the season Friday night at home against Southern Utah.
''We bring different things to the table and we all stepped up last year and we all did different things,'' senior guard Brandon Taylor said. ''Delon was obviously a big part of us, but we'll survive without him. We have a lot of players and the returners are a lot better this year and more mature in our mindset.
''We're a lot deeper than we were last year and, ironically, we're more talented than we were last year. Us being deeper just plays in our favor in so many ways. That's the biggest difference from this year and last year.''
Coach Larry Krystkowiak built the team around a staunch defense and a ball-sharing, San Antonio Spurs-type offense, but he won't force a tweaked roster into an old identity. He won't accept defensive deficiencies - the Utes were the No. 1 defensive team in the Pac-12 last season, allowing 57.1 points per game - but offensive roles are still being defined.
''No matter what happens, each season's going to take on a life of its own,'' said Krystkowiak, entering his fifth season. ''We don't have any expectations. It's a clean slate. We got a little taste of success last year, but that's not a guarantee it's happening again. Some guys are going to be in some different roles and we've got to find a way to collectively put it together and put guys in positions where they can be successful.''
Utah returns four starters off the roster that went 26-9 in 2014-15. The Utes finished second in the Pac-12 and return 10 letter-winners.
Center Jakob Poeltl (7-foot, 235 pounds) bypassed the NBA despite beliefs that he would be a first-round pick. The Austrian was a freshman last season going through the growing pains of a new game and life in a new country. He averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and ranked No. 2 in the league with 63 blocks.
Krystkowiak wants him to play more controlled on offense, have a stronger base, improve his free-throw shooting and stay out of foul trouble.
''A year ago, we didn't know what we had,'' Krystkowiak said. ''Having a little more confidence and being comfortable is going to help him.''
Taylor has taken over as the clear-cut vocal leader of the team - it's in his nature.
The 5-10, 167-pound guard has been a streaky shooter in the past, so that was an offseason focus, in addition to extending his range. Taylor worked on his dribbling skills and wants to be a more poised player. Wright handled the ball much of the time last season and those responsibilities likely fall to Taylor.
Junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam has already been, unfairly, compared to Wright. The 6-4, 215-pound guard from Gillette College is explosive with the ball in his hands, but he must catch up defensively.
Freshman Makol Mawien brings plenty of athleticism in a long, 6-9, 215-pound frame, but Krystkowiak said he's got the steepest learning curve.
''He's kind of a coach's dream in that he's got an awful lot of physical ability,'' Krystkowiak said. ''Now it's our job to teach him to play basketball a little bit better.''
Southern Utah (10-19) enters with plenty of experience but may be short on talent. Fourth-year coach Nick Robinson has four seniors and seven juniors on the roster, but the Thunderbirds were picked to finish fifth in the Big Sky by the conference's coaches and ninth by the media.
Robinson's top two scorers from last season are back, but senior A.J. Hess and sophomore James McGee combined to average less than 20 points. Senior Casey Oliverson led the Big Sky in field-goal percentage (61.5) among players with at least 100 attempts, and his unimpressive 4.1 rebounds per game led the team.
The Thunderbirds won these teams' last meeting in 2006, but Utah leads the all-time series 8-2.