Posted on November 19, 2020
2020 Recruiting Class: 6th in Pac-12 (46th Nationally)
Ian Martinez, Guard, 4-Star
Norbert Thelissen, Forward, 3-Star (Ineligible for 2020-21 season due to NCAA rules)
Pelle Larsson, Guard, 3-Star
Mason Falslev, Guard, 3-Star (Inactive for 2020-21 season due to a church mission)
Big Picture: Utes Must Develop Newcomers, Be More Competitive on the Road
Apart from their season opener against Nevada, the Utes lost every true road game they played last year. And most by double digits. That’s not a pattern, that’s a trend.
The excuse of having one of the youngest teams in the NCAA won’t hold water in 2020-21. Larry Krystkowiak must address his team’s Achilles Heel.
The struggles away from Salt Lake City were even more head-scratching considering the talent on Utah’s roster. Junior Timmy Allen is one of top players in the Pac-12, and point guard Rylan Jones has shades of a young Payton Pritchard.
And late in the 2019-20 season, Alfonso Plummer caught fire. The junior college transfer set the Pac-12 Tournament record for most three’s in a game before the remainder of the event was cancelled.
For Krystkowiak to generate realistic expectations of an NCAA Tournament appearance in Allen’s junior year, his freshmen class must live up to expectations. Headlined by four-star guard Ian Martinez, the class is ranked 46th in the nation and 6th in the Conference of Champions.
On paper, that should give high hopes for an improved season. But the reality is half the class is either ineligible or inactive for this year. Three-star Dutch forward Norbert Thelissen must sit out the season because he played in too many professional games after graduating high school, despite never signing a professional contract. And three-star local product Mason Falslev is inactive this year while on a church mission to Brazil.
To make matters worse, Both Gach unexpectedly transferred over the summer.
That puts extra emphasis on Martinez’ ability to hit the ground running. His emergence as another threat to score beyond Allen and Plummer could be what propels Utah to an improvement on its 7-11 conference record from last year.
Three-star Pelle Larsson out of Sweden also projects to play an important role off the bench, depending on how well he adjusts to the American game.
Reasonable Expectations: Win at Least One Road Game, Stay Healthy
The program hasn’t won a road Pac-12 game since February 23, 2019 when it played Washington State. By the time conference play gets into full swing, it will be nearly two seasons since the Utes got it done.
Though the Conference has markedly improved this year, it’s reasonable to expect Krystkowiak to emerge victorious at least one time away from Salt Lake City.
The games at California, Washington State, and Oregon State project as potential opportunities to break the streak.
Much of that depends on the health of Jones, though. The scrappy guard suffered too many injuries during his freshman campaign, and his skill-set is arguably irreplaceable. A pure point guard, Jones is an extension of his head coach and effectively runs the offense. At least when he is healthy.
A year under the Utah strength and conditioning staff should have done him well. But that remains to be seen.
Achievable Goal: Dominate at Home, Advance in Pac-12 Tournament
When it comes down to it, an 8 or 9-seed in the Pac-12 Tournament is a one-way ticket to another season without an invitation to the Big Dance. With a team strong enough to finish seventh or better, the Utes can set their sights on avoiding that trap game.
In some ways, it’s almost preferable to finish tenth or eleventh to avoid an eventual matchup with the 1-seed.
But to do it, winning at home is a must. Only UCLA and Oregon beat Utah at the Huntsman Center last year, a strong showing that is as respectable as any in the Pac-12. Maintaining that 7-2 mark in conference play is both realistic and achievable.
Best Case: Young Guards Shine, Utes Earn Shot as Bubble Team
Martinez lives up to expectations and Jones stays healthy, as Utah find ways to split road trips and hold serve at home. As most expect, Allen continues to shine and faces an even tougher choice about his professional future at season’s end.
Krystkowiak pulls off an upset over a ranked team or two in Salt Lake City, reinforcing the Huntsman Center’s reputation and putting a punctuation point on the year.
In Las Vegas, the program wins its opening round match and faces a Top 4 seed on Thursday. With an opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals, Utah generates discussions as a potential bubble team with a chance for their first NCAA Tournament invitation since 2016.
Though the Utes fall short, Allen returns for his senior year with unfinished business and an even stronger roster to support him.
— Previous 2020-21 Basketball Previews —
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