Nearly three years ago, when Sean Miller was starting to rack up the five-star recruits who are now fueling the Arizona Wildcats’ record-breaking start, Larry Krystkowiak was in another place entirely.
The newly hired coach at Utah just needed players. Period.
Big, small, local, foreign, whatever.
Just players. Decent Division I players.
“It was a different deal,” Krystkowiak said. “Before we’d go on the road and it was about finding everybody. If he was point guard, or a center, and he could play, you’re interested.
“Now you’re focused. Now you can be far more efficient.”
Now, after revamping his roster repeatedly since taking over the Utes in the spring of 2011, Krystkowiak has been able to pinpoint recruiting holes to fill a roster that has won 14 games already this season.
He already has in-state forward Jordan Loveridge leading the Utes as a sophomore, and eye-opening junior college transfer Delon Wright, while being expected to have nearly his entire roster back next season along with Top 100 forward Brekkott Chapman.
“Where they were three years ago and where they are now is a much different place,” Miller said. “When you play Utah right now you’re playing a more experienced team, not only with their own players but with their system.”
Three years ago, the Utes were winding down the Jim Boylen era, firing him in March 2011 after two straight losing seasons that followed a first-round NCAA tournament upset loss to Arizona, of all teams.
Krystkowiak reworked the roster he inherited well into the summer of 2011, eventually carrying 11 newcomers during the first season and reluctantly booting his best player, guard Josh “Jiggy” Watkins, because of multiple indiscretions.
Last season, Utah thrust Loveridge into a prominent role as a freshman, then rode the shoulders of grad transfer guard Jarred DuBois and senior big man Jason Washburn, while winning five Pac-12 games and going 15-18 overall.
This time around, Krystkowiak brought in four junior college transfers and three freshmen, with upgraded talent and experience that helped the Utes whip through nonconference play with their only loss a two-point game at Boise State.
“Let’s face it,” Krystkowiak said. “In order to be successful, it’s all about players. I think certainly in the first year we were so late in the process that we didn’t have a whole lot of time to find players, and the second year I felt like we went out and found some real solid freshmen to help build it a little bit.
“A lot of kids were on the fence probably. I can think of Utah players who were pretty good high school players who are wondering what direction you’re going in.”
One of those players, Loveridge, hopped off the fence. He was Krystkowiak’s first major in-state recruit and, next season, Utah will welcome another with Chapman, a onetime Arizona recruiting target.
“To me, your in-state recruiting is huge and then we’ve got four international kids on our team,” Krystkowiak said. “You can get as detailed as you want but at the end of the day it’s about finding really solid kids who play and they make us coaches look a lot smarter.
“I think that’s really the life force of an entire program — just finding the right players. I feel really good about where we’re going in that direction.
Miller said Loveridge, who leads the Utes in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (8.1), is now making a comparably big jump as a sophomore than the Wildcats’ sophomores are, and that Wright, a versatile combo guard from City College of San Francisco, is an all-conference player.
Although the Utes have yet to win a road game this season, they beat UCLA at home on Jan. 18 and have lost their five total games by an average of just 2.6 points.
That’s progress, too.
“Just look at their scores,” Miller said.
If history is any indication, today’s score will be close, too.
Arizona is the only team Utah has still not beaten in conference play since joining the Pac-12 in 2011-12 but the Utes actually led Arizona by 13 points at McKale Center before losing 70-61 during their three-win inaugural conference season.
Then, last season, Utah held Arizona to just 36.2 percent shooting at McKale Center while the Utes made 7 of 16 three-pointers. The Wildcats barely pulled out a 60-57 win, Arizona’s last victory during its unbeaten run to start last season.
In Salt Lake City, Arizona coasted to a 77-51 win in a chippy 2011-12 game that resulted in Solomon Hill’s ejection, and the Utes lost by only four there last season.
Whether all that means anything today, of course, is unknown. The Wildcats are, after all, pretty good this season.
“Each year is kind of a different story,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got new guys and it will be interesting to see how we respond. When our backs are to the wall and we’re fighting, scratching, we’ve been OK.”
But “this is a really good Arizona team, by far the best we’ve faced, and obviously there’s a reason they’re the No. 1 team in the country. There’s just a bunch of challenges.”