Getting to know the opponent: Utah

WildcatAuthority.com had a chance to sit down with Brian Smith of InsidetheUtes.com to talk about the addition of Utah into the PAC-12 conference. How do fans of the Utes view Arizona and others in the conference? What can Arizona fans expect when facing Utah this season? Read on to find out.

Wildcat Authority.com: Brian, please give our readers some insight into the Utah basketball program, including its current coaching staff and history in recent years.

Brian Smith: First year head coach Larry Krystkowiak inherits a Utah program with a proud history that has fallen on tough times. Krystkowiak becomes the third head coach since Rick Majerus stepped down in 2004 due to health concerns. Majerus' predecessor was Ray Giacoletti who rode the coattails of Andrew Bogut to a 29-6 record, and a sweet 16 appearance in 2005. Bogut left to become the #1 pick of the NBA draft, and the next 2 years Utah went 14-15 and 11-19. Giacoletti was fired in 2007 and replaced by Jim Boylen. Boylen took over the program, going 69-60 in 4 years, with 1 NCAA appearance when the Utes lost in the opening round to 12th seeded Arizona. Boylen ended his tenure at Utah with consecutive losing seasons, and a not so cordial departure.

Current Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak came to Utah from the NBA where he was the Head Coach of the Milwaukee Bucks for 2 seasons, and an assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets for 2 seasons. Prior to coaching in the NBA, Krystkowiak was the head coach at the University of Montana, where he enjoyed very successful years, and even turned down the University of Utah job before Boylen accepted. Krystkowiak is joined on the bench by former Westminster College Head Coach, and former Rick Majerus assistant Tommy Connor. Connor was a strong candidate for the head coaching position before Krystkowiak was hired.

Wildcat Authority.com: What is the status of the current roster? (Breakdown of seniors, juniors, sophomores, and incoming freshmen)

Brian Smith: Utah currently has: four Freshman, three Sophomores, four Juniors, two Seniors, two D1 transfers who will sit this season, and four players with D1 experience.

Wildcat Authority.com: Who is considered to be the best player on Utah's team?

Brian Smith: Utah's best player should be Josh "Jiggy" Watkins. The senior PG joined the Utes as a junior as a juco transfer. Watkins averaged 14.5 ppg and 3.5 apg as a junior. Watkins' greatest strength is his ability to penetrate and create fouls. Watkins is a very strong PG who uses his body well, and would have been more effective at a lower playing weight in 2010. Watkins likes the ball in his hands, and averaged as many turnovers in 2010 as he did assists.

Wildcat Authority.com: Which player is relatively unknown, but one that fans should look for to have a breakout season?

Brian Smith: Senior Center David Foster. Foster is massive at 7'3, with a 7'8 wingspan. Foster takes over as the leader of this Utah team, as one of only 2 seniors. Foster is an extremely hard worker, and is loyally committed to the Utah program. Since returning from an LDS mission in 2009, Foster has averaged nearly 4.0 blocks per game in 20 minutes per night. Foster is not much of a scoring option, but was arguably the best shot blocker in America last season. Foster was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the year as a sophomore, and was runner-up as a junior.

Last season Foster was plagued by a nasal blockage that limited his ability to breathe properly. After a successful offseason surgery, Foster should be able to play heavier minutes for this Utah team. Foster is shockingly huge, and greatly alters the game for as long as he can stay on the floor.

Wildcat Authority.com: From a Utah basketball perspective, what does it mean to join the PAC-12 Conference in terms of competition, recruiting, exposure, etc?

Brian Smith: Utah fans are elated over joining the PAC-12 Conference, though the excitement is more centered around football right now, where Utah will have a better chance to be competitive. Utah joins the PAC-12 at a time of transition (both for the program and the conference). The strength of the PAC-12 conference is lower than it has been historically, and the Utah basketball program is at its' lowest point in decades.

The Utes are coming from a respectable basketball conference in the MWC (which featured strong hoops programs such as UNLV, San Diego St, BYU, and New Mexico), yet the reality of PAC-12 basketball looms over the Utah hoops program. Utah struggled to compete in the MWC conference last year. Fans and administration know that Utah will struggle intensely during the first couple of years in the Pac-12, and will be patient for a while.

During the Rick Majerus years, Utah was a national power, and was consistently able to pull high levels of talent out of the fertile grounds of southern California. Since Majerus, the University of Utah has not produced a single NBA player (Bogut was a Majerus' recruit). Utah is preaching PAC-12 to recruits right now, and are seeing increased interest from players that might be able to compete in the PAC-12.

Wildcat Authority.com: Who do you anticipate to be Utah's biggest basketball rival upon entering the PAC-12?

Brian Smith: Historically, Utah has crossed paths the most with Arizona, though I'd venture to say Utah's biggest basketball rival upon entering the PAC-12 will be Colorado. One of Colorado's best players this season should be Carlon Brown, a former Utah standout who left the program before his senior season, and joined the Buffaloes. Brown should bring some level of familiarity as an opponent to the Utes, and though Colorado has improved as a hoops program in recent years, the idea of conquering Colorado seems more realistic to Utah fans than the idea of matching up with Arizona.

Wildcat Authority.com: Utah's football program has had a good following in recent years, how is the fanbase and support for the basketball program?

Brian Smith: Utah's fanbase for basketball has seemingly gone into hiding, rearing its' head only to express its displeasure with the direction of the program. Passion still exists in the program, through the passion and optimism has been buried below many layers of disappointment and frustration. Fans are generally stuck in a wait-and-see approach…eager to jump back onboard, but also eager to express criticism over the somewhat controversial hire of Larry Krystkowiak.

Wildcat Authority.com: Do Utah fans have much knowledge regarding the other PAC-12 teams? Additionally, who do they consider to be the best team in the conference?

Brian Smith: Utah fans are very familiar with PAC-12 basketball programs, but quite unfamiliar with current PAC-12 teams and players. The average Utah fan could probably name 2 or 3 players off of every team in the MWC, but probably could only name 1 or 2 players off of half the teams in the PAC-12. Familiarity will come as Utah fans watch their teams face off with some of the premiere athletes in the nation twice a year. In terms of program recognition, Utah fans have great respect for the historical tradition and strength of programs in the PAC-12. This respect carries over into recruiting as well, as Utah has not competed against PAC-12 schools for recruits much over the past 10 years.

Utah fans consider Arizona, UCLA and Washington as the best teams in the conference, with UCLA a tier above the rest. Like I mentioned in a previous section, Utah fans are quite unfamiliar with PAC-12 players at this point, so most familiarity comes from tracking possible NBA draft choices for the Utah Jazz, or from tracking the premier high school recruits that seem to find their way to UCLA and Arizona annually.

Wildcat Authority.com: What is the environment like on game days in the Huntsman Center? How many fans typically fill the seats?

Brian Smith: Historically, the Huntsman Center is electric. During the late 90s, 15,000 fans would pack the Huntsman Center to cheer on their team. The student section took up about ¼ of the arena, and the students went nuts. There weren't many better atmospheres for college basketball in the West. Since the turn of the century, attendance has continually dropped. In 2010, Utah averaged just over 9,000 fans in attendance, though actually bodies in the seats were probably closer to 7,500.

In the MWC, Utah's schedule featured about 3 or 4 games per year that were marquee games (BYU, San Diego St, UNLV). Utah would get between 9,000-11,000 fans for these games. For the other games (Wyoming, Oral Roberts, Boise St), Utah had between 6,000-7,500 fans in attendance. The schedule was horrendous, and the product wasn't great either. In 2010, the student section regularly featured less than 100 students in attendance.

Wildcat Authority.com: What will be the most highly regarded game at the Huntsman Center this season?

Brian Smith: BYU. There is no way to understate the magnitude of the Utah/BYU rivalry. Even in a down year, the Utah/BYU game will be the biggest draw of the season. From within the conference, Arizona comes to town on 1/19, which will be the biggest name to visit the Huntsman Center in quite a while. The big question with the Arizona game will be whether Utah has not scared all of their fans back into hiding by 1/19.

Wildcat Authority.com: What are this season's expectations of the Utah basketball team among the coaches, players, and fans?

Brian Smith: Expectations are so low for this Utah team, that coaches, players, and fans are not even considering the postseason at this point. Fans want to see what type of a product the new Utah coaching staff is willing to put on the floor, and fans are expecting to see a team that puts it all on the floor every night. Yes, you read that right. Expectations are set at the level of effort the team puts out in 2011-12…not game results.

Wildcat Authority.com: Arizona plays at a very up-tempo pace; does Utah look to do the same?

Brian Smith: Utah brought in Assistant Coach Tommy Connor to install a guard heavy, up-tempo offense to the program. Long-term, the new staff wants to play a very up-tempo style of game, with heavy defensive pressure applied. Unfortunately for the Runnin' Utes, they won't have the personnel to play at that pace this year. Expect Utah to play two centers on the floor as much as possible. With very little talent on the roster, and unknown recruits coming in, 7'3 David Foster and 7'0 Jason Washburn will anchor a slow-paced Utah team that will protect the rim, and attempt to grind down opponents. Slowing down the pace of play will be the only way Utah will stay in games this season.

Wildcat Authority.com: Is there anything else you think Arizona fans would be interested to know regarding Utah basketball?

Brian Smith:

  • Utah had 7 players transfer out of its basketball program since last season, including 3 starters, its leading scorer, top freshman, and leading rebounders.
  • Utah has only 4 players returning from a team that finished 13-18.
  • Utah brought in 5 junior college players (3 scholarships) for the 2011 season, mostly to fill a roster.
  • Utah was among the very worst in America in 2010 at forcing turnovers.
  • Utah was among the very best in America in 2010 at blocking shots.
  • Utah was among the worst in America in 2010 in assists.
  • Utah should feature one of the biggest front lines in the country.
  • Utah has the 9th most program wins among college basketball programs.
  • Utah has the 7th most NCAA appearances among college basketball programs.
  • Utah has 10 outright conference championships, and 28 overall, good for 5th all time among college basketball programs.
  • Utah has played in 4 Final Fours, and has won both an NIT championship and an NCAA championship.
  • Utah is the only school in NCAA history to have a player selected #1 overall in both the NBA draft and the NFL draft (Andrew Bogut & Alex Smith).
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