2015-16 Utah Basketball Preview: Not replacing Delon

If it hasn’t been said yet, allow me: Welcome to the Pac, Utes! From the marked and steady progress of Larry’s program to this year’s football performance, Utah has taken full advantage of its place at the big kid’s table. They’re clearly playing the part on the court. But off the court? Just a brand new $36 million practice facility. Watch the video. Larry Krystkowiak’s office is bigger than my apartment (he’s also taller than me so it’s cool). And his team is probably better than yours. If you’re reading other previews, there’s going to be a focus on “replacing Delon.” In college basketball, if you’re trying to “replace” anyone, you’re in trouble. A college basketball season is a flash in the pan, a shooting star, Josh Rosen’s hot tub. It’s a 30-ish game sample set of whatever you can milk out of immature and budding talents. Delon Wright was exceptional. So, so good. You don’t replace him. You adjust, take inventory of the talent you have and that you’ve brought in, and you coach to that roster. Look at Arizona’s “struggles” last year as they seemingly tried to “replace” Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. That was never Stanley Johnson’s game. What Utah has going for themselves is a lot more known commodities as opposed to unknowns. Brandon Taylor is great. Brekkot Chapman is a sophomore! Jakob Poeltl might be the best player in the conference and Dakari Tucker – not Delon Wright – was the one who drove, drew contact and hit two free throws while down a deuce with 18-seconds left against Wichita State. He’s back.

And maybe you don’t like my Arizona analogy (relax, it’s my bread and butter). For the record, it’s probably the most optimistic you’ll find. I looked at Delon’s 2015 comparables (the players, according to KenPom, that most closely resembled Delon’s contributions). This afforded us access to just a small sample set (4 players + Jerian Grant who’s Notre Dame team has yet to play a season without him). The results showed that, the season after a Delon comparable left school, those teams achieved 3 fewer wins, about a 6% drop in offensive efficiency, while approximately maintaining defensive efficiency. Is this the hard and fast rule? Hell no. But I also think this serves as a good reminder of the aforementioned fluidity, brevity and immediacy of college basketball. One player does not a team make (except for Spencer Dinwiddie at Colorado). Heading into a given season we have no barometer but those 30-ish games played by a nearly completely different group. I wonder what the average percentage of returning minutes is across college basketball? For Utah it’s 75% which is very high and – considering the past success of that three-quarters – is good stuff.

Why I love them

There’s a lot of things to like. Let’s begin with Jakob Poeltl. Think about this for a second: in many interviews, we’ve heard Krystkowiak (a big man himself) note that Poeltl spent much of last season avoiding contact. That his post moves were passive and not strong. So they’ve worked all summer long to get Jakob some ‘go to’ moves, improving his base when taking a shot so as to make more balanced efforts. This is intended to make scoring and/or foul drawing easier. Now consider that Poeltl had the fourth best 2pt FG% in the country!?!?! With passive moves he was shooting nearly 70% inside the arc and now, presumably, he’ll be drawing more fouls (already does it at a 65% FTA/FGA rate) with what Larry hopes is “3 of 4 instead of 2 of 4” free throws. Replacing Delon will be the topic of conversation, but Utah has the unique opportunity to change its identity based on personnel. Image Jakob as the focal point, playing an inside-out game to a collective group of athletic wing-types who shot 41% from deep? Is that something you might be interested in? And one of those shooters is Brandon Taylor. Have we ever discussed how much we like senior point guards at PacHoops? I do. I could run through the consistent Jordan Loveridge or that Brekkot Chapman could be poised to have an All-Conference-type season (will be tough with Taylor and Poeltl on the squad). Those are some great pieces. What I think makes this team special is that they could potentially not miss a beat defensively. That was their calling card last season, ranking 6th nationally in defensive efficiency. They have the pieces to play lengthy, harassing defense all over the floor. Imagine a lineup (which unfortunately sits Taylor’s 5’10” frame): Lorenzo Bonam (6’4”), Kyle Kuzma (6’9”), Brekkot Chapman (6’8”), Jordan Loveridge (6’6”), and Chris Reyes (6’7”). This lineup will likely never play together (I think JLove throws off the versatility), but it’s not crazy to imagine it. This doesn’t even note Dakari Tucker (6’5” senior guard), Kenneth Ogbe (6’6” possible breakout junior guard), or Delon’s 6’2” brother, Isaiah Wright. And maybe I’ve just rattled off names, copping out of previewing the Utes. But the fact of the matter is that Utah even has recognizable names for me to rattle off. Remember, 75% returning minutes. Which means that the predictive stuff can be generally more accurate as it accounts for the Utes’ future success (or otherwise) based on past performance. We can’t accurately quantify a high-school senior’s impact as a college freshman. KenPom rates the Utes 12th overall with another top-10 defense. These are traditionally – and admittedly – inaccurate. But when there’s that much known about the Utes, you’ve got to like their chances.


Why I hate them

Utah, defensively, has owned the paint. They allowed the 25th lowest shooting percentage at the rim and the 5th lowest 2FG% in the nation. Even in 2013-14 the Utes defended the rim well. That’s a team effort and a lot of those principles will remain this season. But while so much of the conversation will be on replacing Delon Wright, Dallin Bachynski was a phenomenal backup center. His minutes and contributions significantly dropped with the arrival of Poeltl, but his presence will most certainly be missed. Because, you see, Jakob has a fouling problem. He committed 4.3 per 40 min last season. It’s really not abysmal but it no doubt limited his floor time. This year, with Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen gone, there isn’t a true center to back Poeltl up. And while I’ve noted much of Utah’s defensive flexibility, this lack of center depth lends itself to a potentially conservative Jakob My extensive research has concluded that keeping lottery picks on the floor is conducive to winning. 

Stat you must know: 20.3

Average offensive possession length in 2015. That’s how long it took, on average, for Utah to get a shot off. They executed possessions to the tune of the 321st longest average in the nation. I dug into this last year and I remain unconvinced that this will have much, if any, affect on the Utes’ offense. But the Utes did take an absurd 16% of their shots with less than 5-seconds on the shot clock. Common sense would suggest that this is usually a difficult shot – yet the Utes shot an absurd 51% eFG% deep in the clock. Is this a transferrable skill or great fortune? I’m not sure. But with a shorter clock, presumably the Utes will take more shots with 5-or-less seconds remaining to do so. Without a creator like Delon, is this a sustainable offensive model?

What I learned at Media Day

Rock top (best case scenario)

Sit down before reading any further, Utah fans. Because you know I’m not far off on this:

  • Poeltl is Pac-12 POY
  • Krystkowiak is Pac-12 COY
  • Chapman is Pac-12 MIP
  • Taylor is team MVP
  • Utes are Pac-12 champs
  • NCAA West Regional 2-seed

And the University of Utah achieves its second Final Four of the 2015-16 NCAA athletic season.

Rock bottom (worst case scenario)

Larry K’s daily yoga in his $36 million practice facility gets him so zen that he overdoes it with the pregame rope burn, destroying the Huntsman Center and practice facility. The Utes, after opening the season 13-0, are forced to practice and play on outdoor courts in the greater Salt Lake area. The Utah winter is unkind to outdoor basketball (but excellent for skiing) and the Utes’ season comes completely unraveled.

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