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Utah basketball: Larry Krystkowiak has work to do to keep Utes' core together

Published March 15, 2017 10:05 pm

Utah men's hoops • Sorting out Kuzma's future is priority No. 1.
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First on the Utah basketball team's agenda: a break.

On Tuesday night, coach Larry Krystkowiak looked like he needed one, and acknowledged as much. After Utah's 73-68 loss to Boise State, he said he hoped that players would be able to go and enjoy spring break — perhaps the only silver lining of a deflating finish to the season.

"We'll kind of decompress now, sort it all out," he said. "Maybe we can break it down and do a follow-up at another point with all the different phases of our season."

But Krystkowiak may not have much of a respite, not if Utah hopes to build back into the NCAA Tournament field next year.

His next task is crucial: Keeping the team together.

If Utah plans to build on the fourth-place Pac-12 finish and first-round NIT exit of this season, it'll need to avoid the flurry of departures that plagued it last summer. And while only one senior, Lorenzo Bonam, graduates, the primary challenge will be bringing back junior forward Kyle Kuzma.

The Flint, Mich., native was the major producer on the team with 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, playing through most of the season with a bum ankle and pulling in 15 double-doubles on the year. He was Utah's only all-conference player this season.

How sure is his return? While Kuzma is considered a fringe second-round pick by Draft Express, he's also prepared to graduate in May. Projecting as a small forward at the next level, Kuzma will need to be sold on the idea that his stock can be improved with another year in college.

The skills he needs in the NBA — ball-handling and outside shooting ability — are not necessarily ones he was able to work on this season as a power forward in the Pac-12. With forward Donnie Tillman coming in and another, Chris Seeley, finally healthy, can Utah play with enough depth at the big men spots to allow Kuzma to slide to the wing?

Kuzma was reluctant to delve into his future possibilities much this offseason, but Krystkowiak, who has already submitted paperwork to get NBA feedback for Kuzma, said he would support him.

"I want what's best for Kyle. I always have," he said. "I'm never going to hold anybody back. Sometimes you end up sitting down and end up having a big boy conversation. He'll have a chance to go to some of these NBA workouts and see how it goes."

Utah also has to get an extra year for Gabe Bealer, the 6-foot-6 wing who finally cracked into the rotation, scoring in each of his final seven games and playing at least 23 minutes in each of the last five. While the Utes feel confident they'll get him back the year he missed as a sophomore, when he suffered a leg injury and enrolled at Utah early, but with the NCAA, Krystkowiak often muses that you're never sure.

Other offseason questions are more murky. Utah has already seen one player, Tim Coleman, transfer mid-year. After sending off six scholarship players last summer, the Utes can't take that hit again, but Krystkowiak has seen at least one transfer or retirement in every season he's been at the helm.

The most pressing question is freshman Devon Daniels, who began the year as a starter until he was suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team." The Utes have remained cryptic about the episode, with Daniels saying he had to sort "some stuff" out and Krystkowiak saying Daniels has work to do to stay on with the Utes.

While the Utes have struck on recruits such as Jakob Poeltl late in the recruiting cycle, Utah's late signees seem to be a little less of a sure thing recently: Late in the cycle last year, Utah signed Coleman, who is gone, and Jakub Jokl, who played only in meaningless stretches this year. A late academic qualifier, Seeley sat with an injury this season.

Krystkowiak stressed this year that he thought his "young team" made progress. Next March, it wouldn't be ideal if he had to repeat himself.

kgoon@sltrib.com Twitter: @kylegoon






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