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April 26, 2011
When Larry Krystkowiak last coached a college team, Utah had just ended a string of four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. The Utes had reached the Sweet 16 and had produced the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft a year earlier.
Much has changed in the ensuing five years.
Utah fans lately have spent March cheering spring football practice instead of following a postseason basketball run. Utah recently finished its second consecutive losing season, which led to the firing of Jim Boylen. Krystkowiak takes over just as the Utes move from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12.
"It's a bright time for Utah basketball," Krystkowiak said. "We're heading into this new league, and with the tradition and everything that's around here, I think the sky's the limit."
Krystkowiak, 46, already has shown he can turn around a program quickly, albeit on a smaller stage. In his only previous college head-coaching assignment, Krystkowiak went 42-20 at Montana from 2004-06 and reached the NCAA tournament in each of his two seasons. Montana had gone 23-35 in the two years before Krystkowiak's arrival.
Krystkowiak left Montana after the 2005-06 season to become an assistant with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. Utah athletic director Chris Hill approached Krystkowiak about Utah's coaching vacancy in 2007, but he chose to remain in the NBA and became the Bucks' coach soon thereafter.
He coached the Bucks for the final 18 games of the 2006-07 season and the 2007-08 season before getting fired with an overall record of 31-69. Krystkowiak, who played for six NBA teams from 1986-96, was working as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets this season when Utah again had an opening. This time, Krystkowiak was much more receptive.
His NBA experience had given him a whole new appreciation for the college game. All those games on back-to-back days in the NBA didn't leave much time for practice and improvement. Krystkowiak said he believes the college schedule offers more opportunities for instruction.
"There's a lot more practice time throughout the course of a week, where you can actually kind of fix what's broken and make progress," said Krystkowiak, who played for the Utah Jazz in 1992-93. "I also think it's a little more conducive to raising a family. I have young kids [five between the ages of 3 and 12]. There's a little more family time."
Andrew Bogut knows plenty about Utah and its new coach. Bogut was the top overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft after winning the Naismith and Wooden national player of the year awards while leading Utah to the Sweet 16 earlier that year. Bogut played for Krystkowiak with the Bucks.
Bogut said he believes Krystkowiak's a better fit for the college game. He even
"As a head coach in the NBA
"We had some turmoil in the locker room, which led to some guys being traded and moved along. ... I think college is the perfect place for Larry Krystkowiak. I'm not saying he can't again coach in the pros, but I think college is a better-suited environment for him."
Bogut said he also believes Krystkowiak's wide range of experience as a player and coach could pay off on the recruiting trail. He also offered some insights on what the Utes could expect from his former coach.
"He's a defensive-minded coach," Bogut said. "He wants guys who are going to play hard and give their all defensively. If a guy's going to score 20 a game but not defend, I doubt he's going to get a whole lot of minutes out there."
Utah already faced a talent shortage even before three players transferred in the wake of the coaching change. The most notable loss is 6-foot-7 swingman Will Clyburn, headed to Iowa State after leading the Utes in points (17.1) and rebounds (7.8) last season. The Utes could lose a fourth player, as 6-7 swingman J.J. O'Brien received his release but hasn't ruled out a return to Utah.
Krystkowiak has discussed rebuilding the talent base by expanding Utah's international recruiting efforts to find the next Bogut or Luke Nevill, like Bogut an Australian and the 2008-09 Mountain West player of the year. Utah didn't have an international player on its roster this past season.
He also will look much closer to home. At Krystkowiak's introductory news conference, he and Hill each noted the importance of signing more players from Utah.
Krystkowiak's emphasis on in-state prospects seems unusual on the surface because Utah isn't known for delivering blue-chip talent and most of the Utes' most notable recent players came from elsewhere.
The Rivals.com database shows that Utah high schools haven't produced any four- or five-star prospects since 2002. Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn came from California. Michael Doleac attended high school in Oregon. Utah went overseas to land Bogut and Nevill.
But there's evidence the Beehive State can provide plenty of quality role players, even if it doesn't offer much star power. Four of the top seven scorers for BYU's Sweet 16 team last season were Utah products, though Naismith and Wooden award winner Jimmer Fredette hails from Glens Falls, N.Y. Three of the five starters from Utah State's NCAA tournament squad came from Utah. By contrast, the Utes went 13-18 and didn't get a single start from a Utah resident. The only in-state resident who played at all for Utah last season was Jace Tavita, a guard who appeared in five games before leaving the team in early December.
"I think Utah does have some pretty good players annually," Krystkowiak said. "I come from Montana, where we were fortunate if there was a Division I player in the entire state. There are multiple players here. It's a big basketball state."
Utah was one of the nation's best programs from outside the six major conferences for much of Rick Majerus' coaching tenure, but the Utes have fallen a long way since then. Utah made 10 NCAA tournaments in an 11-season stretch from 1995-2005, including a championship game appearance in 1998. But the Utes have made just one NCAA appearance
This may not be the perfect time for Utah to enter a tougher conference
"He's a very, very smart guy," Hill said. "He's intense and aggressive, but at the same time seems to balance those qualities into a measured, disciplined style."
Krystkowiak needs all those traits in abundance as Utah makes the transition to the Pac-12. Although the Mountain West arguably was every bit as strong as the old Pac-10 the past two seasons, there's no doubt the newly expanded Pac-12 has more upside and should be better than the MWC.
"The Pac-12 is not an easy league to play in," Krystkowiak said. "The price of poker's gone up. It's going to be really challenging."
Still, it's the kind of challenge Krystkowiak welcomes.