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Kragthorpe: Would-be Utes thriving with Arizona, Gonzaga

Published March 16, 2017 9:07 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Find the flaw in this sentence: Instead of making their Salt Lake City basketball debuts Thursday in the NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena, Arizona's Lauri Markkanen and Gonzaga's Zach Collins and Killian Tillie could have played Tuesday in Utah's NIT loss to Boise State.

Multiple answers are correct. With any of those freshmen, the Utes wouldn't have lost to Boise State. And with Markkanen or even Collins, Utah certainly would have played in the NCAA Tournament, rather than the NIT.

The three big men were prime recruiting targets of the Utes, who barely missed signing them in November 2015. The program's fans would have found it both consoling and disheartening to hear them speak Wednesday about how close they came to choosing Utah.

Markkanen: "I liked Utah a lot."

Collins: "A very close decision."

Tillie: "A hard choice."

"You don't get a whole lot of credit for finishing second in those races," Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said this week. "But it continues to validate … that we're in the living rooms and the ballgame for some of the right kids. And we need to catch a break on some of those [players] and get a chance to coach them."

Markkanen, Collins and Tillie are the Utes' If-Onlys performing in the West Region, reminding everyone what we're missing. Markkanen's Wildcats, who skipped Salt Lake City in the Pac-12 scheduling rotation this season, practiced Wednesday at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on Utah's campus prior to their open session downtown. "It's really nice; world-class environment there," Markkanen said.

Mix in Lone Peak High School graduate Frank Jackson, a Duke star as a freshman, and Wasatch Academy forward Emmanuel Akot, who's committed to Arizona in the Class of 2018, and you have a remarkable fivesome of Almost Utes.

Their projected NBA departure dates are staggered, so they wouldn't all have played together, and anyone would have to be greedy to picture them all in Ute uniforms. But is just one of them too much to ask for?

Markkanen, especially, would have been a program-changer — even if the 7-foot forward stayed only one year before entering the NBA as a lottery pick. The John R. Wooden Award finalist is averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for the 30-4 Wildcats. Markkanen attended Helsinki Academy in Finland, where one of his coaches was former Ute star Hanno Mottola. The SI.com account of his recruitment said he was ready to commit to Utah after his official visit, but his father encouraged him to make scheduled stops at North Carolina and Arizona before deciding.

Collins, from Bishop Gorman High School in southern Nevada, averages 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds in only 17 minutes for Gonzaga. His other finalists were Utah and San Diego State.

"I don't think I could have made a wrong decision between those three," Collins said.

He's a solid contributor to Gonzaga's 32-1 record. "We have four bigs that we really believe in, that quite frankly we're comfortable playing at any point in the game," coach Mark Few said.

One of them is Tillie, whose brother Kim played for the Utes from 2006-10 under Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen and competed for France in the 2016 Olympics with the Jazz's Rudy Gobert and Boris Diaw. Killian Tillie regularly visited the Utah campus during his brother's tenure and has good memories of Salt Lake City. He also liked Krystkowiak and "how he treated his players," Tillie said.

He picked Gonzaga, which has thrived with international players. Tillie averages 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10 minutes.

Krystkowiak likes his own incoming players, amid the near-misses. In his six years at Utah, the level of recruiting target has increased "pretty dramatically," he said. That creates "a little different competition level, trying to land those kids."

The Utes keep coming close, which makes it either better or worse.


Twitter: @tribkurt






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