- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: The Utah Utes.
In the minds of fans and some athletic directors -- and, heck, even some coaches -- the ideal rebuild lasts four seasons. The first couple of years are all groundwork, weeding and tilling. In year three, the first signs of life begin to spring. In year four, you're fully grown.
Again, this is the ideal. Reality is rarely so tidy. Occasionally a new coach will exceed all reasonable expectations, and an ostensibly rebuilding program will find itself in the NCAA tournament right away. (Or, if your first-year coach happens to be John Calipari, you find John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe on your roster.) When the growth rate lags and the fans get restless, a program is forced to decide whether the plateau is temporary or permanent. No two decisions are alike. Either way, the textbook rebuild -- the ideal -- is extremely rare.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak pulled it off. And yet, to credit Krystkowiak with the perfect four-year rebuild somehow still sells his particular rebuild short.
In 2014-15, Utah guard Delon Wright was the nation's best two-way point guard, a masterful, intelligent player on both ends of the floor. The Utes played the nation's eighth-stingiest per-possession defense. They rose to challenge Arizona in the Pac-12. They introduced previously unknown Austrian center Jakob Poeltl to an unsuspecting populace. They finished the season in the Sweet 16, when they held Duke's seemingly unstoppable offense to just 63 points in 64 trips but fell victim to the eventual national champs' late-season defensive mutation.
It was a rousing, and at times even underrated, success. Compared to where it started, it was something like a miracle. In 2011, when Krystkowiak replaced Jim Boylen at the helm, eight Utah players transferred out of the program, which might be some kind of record. Utah went 6-25 in his first season. It ranked 297th in adjusted efficiency. Senior guard Josh Watkins -- nickname: "Jiggy" -- inefficiently chucked his way to a nation's-best 39 percent usage rate (39 percent!) before Krystkowiak kicked him off the team for, among other things, serially sleeping through classes. If it weren't for a Kevin O'Neill-helmed abomination at USC, Utah would have been the worst team in the worst edition of the Pac-12 in decades. Either way, Krystkowiak's tenure began in a deep gulch.
Then, a year later, the Utes went 15-18. A year after that, 21-12. Then came the breakthrough of 2014-15. At every turn, Krystkowiak has vastly outpaced even the most optimistic expectations. On his watch -- even when timed against the ideal -- the Utes always have been ahead of schedule.
What the immediate future holds:
Now that the rebuilding is over, Utah can get down to worrying about the rich-person's problems more common of established programs. Like: How do we replace our invaluable star? Or: Will our projected lottery pick leave for the NBA?
Fortunately for Utah, the latter was a no. Poeltl was indeed seen by many NBA scouts as worthy of an early to mid-first round selection, and his sheer size and athletic ability (he moves very well at 7-foot) might have been enough to ensure it. If not, visions of Poeltl as Timofey Mozgov, who is currently experiencing a LeBron James-induced renaissance in Cleveland, could have tipped the scales.
Instead, Poeltl decided to return for his sophomore season, which makes the departure of Wright -- the team's point guard, leader, best player, and a senior at the end of his two-year post-JUCO stay -- a bit easier to swallow. Without both, Krystkowiak had every position on the court filled except the two most important. OK, so that wouldn't have been totally true; senior guard Brandon Taylor could have expanded his minutes at the point fairly well. But it could have created the conditions for a first half-step back of Krystkowiak's otherwise Napoleonic march.
Instead, the march should continue. Along with classmate Taylor, the unsung heroes of Utah's 2014-15 season -- wings Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker -- are both back. All three are long-range threats and excellent perimeter defenders. Poeltl was a great rim protector, and a force on the offensive glass, from his first days on campus. His low-post finishing improved throughout the season. Assuming further refinements, it's easy to imagine Krystkowiak crafting an inside-out offense built on forcing teams to choose between layups for Poeltl or open 3s for good shooters on the wing. It's even easier to imagine another elite Utes defense -- one that operates like a frightful, efficiency-destroying inversion of its offense.
Losing Wright won't be easy, but keeping Poeltl makes it easier. Mix in much-needed minutes for last season's interesting underclassmen (Kyle Kuzma, Brekkott Chapman, Isaiah Wright), and Utah doesn't need to take the proverbial step back, even with its All-American guard off to the NBA.
Will the Utes be as good as 2014-15? Better? That feels like way too much to expect. Then again, given the precedent, maybe it's too little.
Looking ahead at the Utah Utes in 2015-16, who kept a big piece of their ever-building puzzle with the return of center Jakob Poeltl.