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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 17 Utah Runnin’ Utes

Photo: Icon Sportswire

Larry Krystkowiak has a pregame ritual for his Utah Utes, which the head coach explained to Bill Walton last season.

Krystkowiak burns Montana sweetgrass in the Ute locker room to, as he explained to Matt Piper and Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune, “get the spirit right.”

Sweetgrass gives off the odor of winning in Utah. It took time and plenty of struggles, including a 6-25 finish in Krystkowiak’s debut season at Utah (which was also the program’s first in the Pac-12 Conference), but Krystkowiak’s leadership has reestablished the Utes as players in the college basketball landscape.

Every season under Krystkowiak has seen measurable improvement, from six wins in Year 1 to 15 in Year 2 and 21 in Year 3.

Year 4, 2014-’15, produced a 26-9 final record; contention for the Pac-12 regular-season championship; and the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade. With a final overall KenPom rating of No. 8, last season’s Utes were among the nation’s most balanced and efficient teams.

Following the trajectory under Krystkowiak, the 2015-’16 Utes could reach the heights of the program’s great 1990s teams under the late Rick Majerus.

The Utes return key pieces in sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, guard Brandon Taylor and swingman Jordan Loveridge. With that corps, Utah has the foundation on which to build toward a run like the 1997 Elite Eight, or perhaps even the 1998 national championship game appearance.

But that’s assuming Utah can adequately fill one gaping void left from last season’s team.

Key Departures: Delon Wright (guard); Dallin Bachynski

Delon Wright was the heart and soul of Utah basketball during its rise under Krystkowiak. The Utes aren’t left replacing much as far as bodies, but replicating what it got from one player in Wright may take several new contributors stepping up.

Wright did it all, leading Utah in points per game (14.5) and assists (5.1) and was second in rebounds behind only Poeltl (4.9).

Wright didn’t win Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2014-’15, but one could argue the conference didn’t have a more valuable player anywhere else.

Center Dallin Bachynski lost his job on the block to Poeltl, but he gave Krystkowiak the option of rolling with a dual 7-footer lineup.

Key Additions: Lorenzo Bonam (guard); Makol Mawien (center/forward)

Junior college All-American transfer Lorenzo Bonam, a late addition to the Utes’ 2015 signing class, could be an instant impact player in the two-guard spot Wright’s departure opened. He averaged almost 17 points per game at Gillette College in Wyoming.

Local, three-star prospect Makol Mawien flew somewhat under the recruiting radar, only gaining interest from powerhouse Gonzaga late in the process. He was already committed to Utah by the time the Zags came calling.

The rangy Mawien should provide needed depth behind Poeltl, which is especially important after the graduation of back-up big man Bachynski.

Schedule Analysis

Utah faces several high-profile tests right out of the gate, starting on the ESPN Tip-off Marathon against San Diego State.

The Utes’ former Mountain West Conference counterparts have become March stalwarts, and Steve Fisher’s squad is among the few Utah will see this season with comparable length.

From there, Utah heads to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which features a strong field of Butler, Miami, Mississippi State and Temple — all potential NCAA Tournament teams.

The Holy War with BYU may have gone on hiatus in the fall, but Dec. 2 reignites the bitter rivalry in Salt Lake City.

A return engagement of last year’s overtime thriller at the Huntsman Center between Utah and Wichita State sends the Utes to Intrust Bank Arena. The very next week brings a Sweet 16 rematch with defending national champion Duke in the Blue Devils’ home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden.

Utah certainly won’t begin Pac-12 play without a sense of where it stands nationally. Five of its nonconference opponents or potential opponents finished 2015 ranked No. 35 or better per KenPom.com’s overall ratings.

The Pac-12’s imbalanced schedule means Utah sees conference championship contenders Arizona and UCLA just once each. The Wildcats visit the Huntsman Center in the regular season’s penultimate weekend, and the Utes come to Pauley Pavilion the week prior.

Utah draws Oregon and Cal home-and-home. Both should factor into a likely five-team race.

Certainly the loss of Wright stings, but there’s returning talent to spare.

Versatile Poeltl’s ceiling is sky-high. He could be Utah’s best big man since Andrew Bogut or Michael Doleac, albeit playing his own, unique style.

The sophomore from Austria is a tremendous leaper, and his footwork was at times impressive his freshman season.

Utah has a nice inside-outside combination between Poeltl and Taylor. The point guard Taylor provided scoring pop at nearly 11 points per game and the most consistent 3-point ball on the roster.

Loveridge’s deep shot started to pick up late in the season, particularly for the NCAA Tournament run. The talented senior looked like a breakout star candidate in 2013-’14, but has yet to put all the pieces together.

In his final season as a de facto leader, 2015-’16 could be Loveridge’s opportunity to elevate his game enough to contend for Pac-12 Player of the Year.

With Dakari Tucker and Brekkott Chapman adding veteran depth, Utah has one of the most intriguing rosters in the Pac-12, if not all of college basketball.

Voting media tabbed the Utes third in the preseason Pac-12 poll. That’s not necessarily a slight; the conference’s top five looks almost interchangeable ahead of the season, with each of the top contenders boasting impressive facets but facing glaring questions.

Two-time defending regular-season champion Arizona loses a bevy of talent and is relying on reserves and youngster to fill the gaps. Cal is leaning on freshman to get it over the hump against the high-quality teams that blew out the Golden Bears a season ago.

Oregon’s high-tempo style can be erratic. UCLA features an impressive, veteran corps with Bryce Alford and Tony Parker, but depth is a concern.

With so much uncertainty among the Pac-12’s best, the conference title is there for Utah’s taking.

The Utes slipped up down the stretch in last year’s conference championship race, sustaining three of its five Pac-12 losses between Feb. 22 and March 7.

Though Utah sees UCLA and Arizona in the final few weeks, four games against Cal and Oregon throughout January and the first week of February will determine if the Utes are indeed Pac-12 contenders for that final stretch.

Anything from first place in the Pac-12 to fifth is possible, but expect the Utes to end the regular season closer to the former. This team should flirt with 30 wins and play into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, all the while enjoying the sweet smell of success.

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