It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. During the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what’s ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Utah.
Two seasons ago, Wright was arguably the best guard in the country — a ball-dominating, rim-driving, defensive-perimeter-swarming fulcrum of Larry Krystkowiak’s breakout Utah team. Even with the rest of a Sweet 16 lineup intact, the idea of thriving in Wright’s absence was questionable at best, unimaginable at worst.
Just as difficult to imagine: That we’d end up here, one year later, asking whether Poeltl will be the more daunting personnel loss of the two. And yet — after a sophomore season in which Poeltl transformed from “previously unknown, highly intriguing freshman prospect” into “ruthless destroyer of all who would oppose him” — here we are. It’s not only a fun theoretical, but a telling intangible gauge of just how good Poeltl was a season ago. It’s actually a valid question!
It’s also exclusively theoretical. There will be no available ongoing comparison. This offseason in Salt Lake City is not like last offseason in Salt Lake City. Utah is not merely losing its best player. It’s losing almost everybody else, too.
In addition to Poeltl, whose sophomore metamorphosis likely sealed his lottery-pick placement in this month’s NBA draft, the other Coach K finds himself waving farewell to senior guards Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker. All three — particularly Taylor and Loveridge — were instrumental in Utah’s resurrection (from a six-win nadir in 2011-12) and rebirth (as a single-digit-seeded NCAA tournament fixture the past two seasons). During Wright’s final season, all three benefited from the raft of open 3s their leader’s penetration created; a season ago, they stretched defenses from the wing as Poeltl drew one helpless post double after another.
Those stalwarts weren’t Utah’s only secondary offensive weapons in 2015-16, however, and they weren’t necessarily the most effective on the floor at any given time. Six-foot-nine forward Kyle Kuzma built on the hints of freshman-year promise with even better shooting numbers (despite taking 199 more 2-point shots) and nearly doubling his offensive rebounds per trip (from 5.0 percent to 9.5). Guard Lorenzo Bonam, who followed in Wright’s junior college footsteps, didn’t stumble often; he was the Utes’ most capable ball-mover and arguably its most efficient outside-in finisher.
Those two guys are back. Which is great news! They’re also the only two rotation guys back. Which is less than great.
Losing Poeltl, Loveridge, Taylor and Tucker is rough enough, but at least that was part of the plan. Less by-design were this spring’s three other departures: junior forward Chris Reyes, sophomore guard Isaiah Wright and sophomore forward Brekkott Chapman. Of the three, Chapman’s departure might sting the most; despite struggling for much of last season, he rebounded and played well down the stretch, and his freshman year hinted that he had big-time production in his future, given the opportunity. Instead, despite all of the open spots in the lineup — and the fact that Reyes and Wright had already announced their decisions to transfer — Chapman still asked for his release.
Into this suddenly gaping breach comes … well, a bunch of dudes you probably haven’t heard of. Which isn’t necessarily bad. After Wright (and then Bonam), it’s no surprise Krystkowiak would look to the juco ranks for talent; three of the seven newcomers (guards JoJo Zamora and Tim Coleman Jr., forward Tyler Rawson) in the class of 2016 will arrive via the junior college path. Four-star freshman Jayce Johnson, meanwhile, is the No. 14-ranked center in the class, and Jakub Jokl, a relatively unknown (at least in the States) 7-footer from Prague, will no doubt have Utah fans crossing their fingers at the hope of another Poeltl landing from the sky.
The best reason to be optimistic in all of this is, of course, Krystkowiak himself. Five seasons ago, he inherited a program transitioning to Pac-12 from the Mountain West, where it had, the previous season, finished 13-18 overall and 6-10 in league play. His first season on the job was that six-win disaster, in large part because his hollowed-out roster’s best player (shouts to Jiggy Watkins) had to be kicked off the team three weeks into January. A few seasons later, Utah is not only relevant but led by a coach whose team-building chops can be trusted implicitly. He’ll figure things out.
The need to compensate for losses such as Wright and Poeltl in back-to-back seasons is as good a sign as any of how far Utah has come. But if a step back felt plausible a year ago, it feels all but guaranteed now.