University of Utah sophomore forward/center Jayce Johnson (34) makes a slam dunk during an NCAA Basketball game vs. Louisiana State University at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

After losing to Penn State in the NIT Tournament and finishing the season off with a 23-12 record, the Runnin’ Utes aspire to do bigger and better things this time around. This summer, the Utes recruited six players. Two players were four-star recruits and four of them were three-star recruits. It’s been a busy summer for the team as coach Larry Krystkowiak looks forward to integrating these freshman players into the team. After losing in the NIT Finals last season, the Runnin’ Utes look forward to improvement as this team will be stocked with some young talent that will both contribute now and for years to come.

The team faces a tough pre-season schedule and plans to be sharp in the early stages of the season to bolster their resume as every win matters in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee. This Utes team has a lot of potential, but just because they have potential, it’s going to be a process in order for the team to fully utilize it. The schedule isn’t easy as the Utes will be playing against tough opponents like Kentucky, BYU and Minnesota for their non-conference games.

Krystkowiak believes in terms of athleticism and defending ability, there is no team in the past that can be compared with this current one that they’ve assembled. With a solid recruitment this summer, Krystkowiak is confident in his ability to transform the new additions into NBA-like players. Utah has been in the Pac-12 for quite some time now and has produced some star players like Kyle Kuzma, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright.

Despite the losses the Utes took, one of the biggest moves in the off-season was Barefield’s return. On top of that, the Utes recruited four-star wing Both Gach, who averaged 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game as he helped his high-school with a 24-4 record and also lead his previous high-school to a 29-3 record in 2016. He has proven to be a winner and is a great overall player. Timmy Allen is another four-star recruit, ranked a top-30 wing in the nation and the top recruit out of Arizona. He averaged 19.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.0 steals per game, earning a spot on both the First-Team All-Region and Region’s All-Defensive Team.

The Utes also recruited many three-star players. Those players are all versatile and can spread the floor well. This is exactly what Krystkowiak had wanted, giving him the roster to create a dangerous team for this season. Along with veteran presence and young versatile players, Krystkowiak has made it known that his goal is to not just win 20 games, but to also qualify for the March Madness tournament. In order to do so, Krystkowiak will rely heavily on Sedrick Barefield. Barefield scored 12 points a game, excelled at attacking the rim and shot 84.7 percent at the charity stripe. A player to look out for who brings excellent athleticism is Donnie Tillman, who as a freshman blossomed into a contributor, scoring nearly 8 points per game, adding nearly 5 rebounds at 6’7” in only 20 minutes of play per game. With an expanded role this year, expect Tillman to be an integral piece of this year’s team. In this era of basketball, a good team has versatile players that can space the floor and be a physical presence as well.

The Runnin’ Utes have plenty of variety this year as they have shooting, defense, rebounding, physicality, and depth. Despite the schedule being tough this time around, it will be a great test for the Utes to prove to the nation that they should not be a team that is underestimated. Finishing third in the Pac-12 a year ago as well as adding legitimate talent in their freshman class, the Utes could have an excellent season competing in the Pac-12. Traditional powerhouse Arizona has endured turmoil and seemed less dominant a season ago even with their supreme talent that featured number one overall pick in the NBA draft, Deandre Ayton. Furthermore, Oregon, who competed in the Final Four two years ago, didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year.

This good news of traditional powerhouses being potentially weaker is all relative because the Runnin’ Utes will still have to take care of business on their own end. The Utes have the means to compete in the Pac-12, and have aspirations of taking the title with as talented of a team as they have had since Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright led the team to a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament. The culture has changed in the Runnin’ Utes locker room for good. The team is no longer aiming for a goal for 20 wins, but rather to win the Pac-12 and make March Madness, eager to prove they can make a deep run.

t.kar@dailyutahchronicle.com

@TheChrony

Tony Kar
Tony Kar is a sophomore at the University of Utah. This is his first year as a sports writer for the Chronicle and hopes to improve his skills as writer and learn more about the sports at the university. He has started his career with isportsweb, and hopes to continue to become a broadcaster in the future after earning his degree.

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