If all goes right, the nation may know whether the Utah program is here to stay by December.
Last season was a whirlwind for the Utes. After missing the NCAA Tournament for five straight seasons and eight of the previous nine years, Utah was able to go 26-9 and get itself all the way to the Elite Eight where the Utes fell to Duke, which went on to win the national championship.
The 2014-15 season not only marked head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s first NCAA Tournament with the program, but also marked the fourth straight season of improvement. In each of Krystkowiak’s seasons with Utah, the team has won more games than in the prior season. In fact, the team increased its single-season record by 20 wins in just four years.
The improvements for Utah during Krystkowiak’s tenure have been quite evident, but that hasn’t stopped some from wondering whether the team can sustain its success over the last few years.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this skepticism is the graduation of do-it-all guard Delon Wright. Last season, Wright averaged an impressive 14.5 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game in route to earning All-Pac 12 honors.
It’s not hard to see that Wright’s departure will be a major question mark for Utah next season.
There are certainly reasons to believe Utah will overcome the loss of Wright and a few other contributors. Big man Jakob Poeltl could be set for a breakout season and the Utes are also adding several new prospects to the roster. However, it’s hard to gauge how exactly things will work out. After all, Wright wasn’t just a good player, he was outstanding. Replacing him is easier said than done.
The good news is that Utah’s schedule should give fans early answers to these questions.
While many teams have been busy giving themselves lackluster non-conference schedules filled with horrible and uninteresting opponents, the Utes have been setting up an extremely challenging slate. Not only are there several national powers like Duke and Wichita State on the schedule, but Utah could also face challenging teams like Butler, BYU, and San Diego State.
— Utah Athletics (@utahathletics) September 10, 2015
To put this schedule in perspective, simply consider that Utah could face up to four teams that are ranked in the Today’s U preseason Top 25. None of these games will take place at home. That may not sound that significant, but remember that Utah is only playing 13 non-conference games. The Utes could have nearly a quarter of its non-conference slate away from home against top 25 teams.
Talk about a challenge.
What’s even more impressive is that those games don’t even include matchups with BYU and San Diego State. Not only did both teams go to the NCAA Tournament last season, but the only time either program has missed the NCAA Tournament in the last six seasons was when BYU missed the big dance in 2013. Even if these two programs aren’t elite, these are challenging matchups, even for a good team.
All told, the Utes are looking at the potential of six very challenging matchups in non-conference play. So, while other teams are playing local directional schools, Utah will be challenging itself with perennial NCAA Tournament teams and the defending national champions.
Whether Utah will be able to manage such a challenging slate is difficult to predict at this point, but the one thing that is clear is that the state of Utah’s program will be known heading into conference play. With so many challenges, there will be no hiding behind a soft schedule. Whether Utah is a real team and can overcome the loss of Delon Wright will be revealed early and often this season.
And for a Utah program that continues to trend up, an early challenge seems like welcome news.