Here’s a longish one from new Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. He was cagey about answering, but still managed to talk a lot. It’s a coach skill.
You’re not only the new guy on the job, but you’re the new guy in the league. Do you like starting with a more or less fresh slate?
Well, it is that in every definition of the word. When you’re talking about jumping into a new league where things are obviously unique and challenging. There’s an entirely new staff for us, and with our scholarship guys and walk-ons, we’re looking at about 12 new faces, so it is an absolute clean slate in every sense of the phrase, and it’s exciting. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got a pretty good bunch and it’s exciting to be a part of.
You’ve had a little time to put your stamp on the program over the summer. What will your team hang its hat on, so to speak?
That’s a great question. That’s the one thing we’re talking about daily with our guys, is that we’re going to be accountable for going to class and being on time; all the things that we can control to start with: effort, and anything we can get our hands on that we can have something to do with, we’re going to try to do. Now, all of our shots may not go in and things might be a little rough to begin with in terms of execution and players learning how we like to do things, and even us getting a handle on what are the strengths and weaknesses of our team. But we are going to do things full-steam ahead and be held accountable, and those are things we talk about daily.
Given that you have so many new guys, have you even decided what kind of offensive system you’ll be able to run?
I’ve run some stuff in the past that I like. You see a lot of it. I think you have to have a motion offense. We’re running some high-low stuff that I used as a player that coach Montgomery had us run at Montana. We’ve got some Kansas stuff right now that Bill Self uses, some high-low. We’ll run a lot of that. Your question is good, because most people just ask “what are you going to run offensively” and a lot of it is trying to put the players that we have in positions where they can be successful. We’re not in a position right now where we have had a lot of time to recruit to our system, so to speak, so I think it’s important for us as a coaching staff to kind of evaluate what we have and put our guys in a position where they can score some baskets and make things as easy for them as we can.
You brought in a mixture of true freshmen and transfers for your first season. Can you acquaint us with the new guys a bit?
The junior college guys probably start with Cedric Martin. His hometown is Indianapolis and he’s from Lee Community College. He’s a pretty skilled, athletic wing. He’s been doing great here the past month. So I see him probably playing some minutes at the two and three. Javon Dawson from Gulf Coast Community College is a 6-7, 260 pound power forward who’s recovering from an ACL he suffered just over a year ago, so he’s getting back into the mix of things. There’s Dijon Farr, he’s probably a three/four man from Indian Hills Junior College, originally from South Carolina. He’s been great; he loves to defend, he’s a pretty versatile player and he’ll probably play some at the four spot, where he’ll be able to take advantage of some of his skill and quickness as a small forward, and we’ll probably be looking to post him up a little bit. He’s kind of a slasher, but real long, 6-7, 215. Those are the three jucos that we’ll be leaning on a little bit.
We’ve got three freshmen to go with those guys, and one who’s been pretty impressive is Anthony Odunsi from Texas. He’s a 6-4, 200 pound combo guard who’s really made some big strides here in the past month. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a freshman, he didn’t play a part in what we’re doing. Kareem Storey is a freshman from Baltimore, Maryland; kind of the prototypical point guard – he’s super-quick, does a great job defending, strong – he’s really kind of the definition of a point guard. We’d like to see him improve his shooting a little bit, but he gets up and down the floor really fast, he’s a water bug out there and disrupts the flow of the game on both ends of the floor. The last freshman is George Matthews from Arizona. He was actually recruited by the previous staff, but he’s pretty darn skilled. If we can just get him to play the game at a little faster pace, he’s incredibly skilled and I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t get some minutes out of him.
On the question of pace: is your pace going to be a lot different from your predecessor’s?
It’s been interesting. You know, around here, we’re known as the Runnin’ Utes, and that goes back quite a while. I know it was here when Majerus was here and they were scoring 52 points per game. They weren’t really, by definition, the Runnin’ Utes. I think for us, to start with, we may have a question of depth. We’ve got a ways to go, I think, to get our program where we want to take it. If we try to speed up games, the feeling is that we’re probably not playing to our strengths. If we’re trying to make games about more possessions, we’re bringing depth into play, and maybe even the talent level. I don’t have a great feel for the Pac-12, talent-wise, but I do know it’s a pretty darn athletic league with guys who can get up and down the floor, and to play at that pace probably isn’t going to be in our best interests, initially.
Of your returning players, who might step into a bigger role or be a pleasant surprise for the fans?
We’ve got four guys back from last year’s team, and those four guys, I guess, could be considered cornerstones. I’ve been really impressed with Dave Foster, our 7-3 center. He’s getting himself in great shape. He feels good, though he had some health issues in the past. He’s conditioning hard and running hard and he’s looked fantastic in practices. It’s hard to get a shot over the guy. I think, when you see him at 7-3, how quick he gets the ball in the hoop when he’s around it, in terms of dunking it, and all the shots he alters or blocks, it’s kind of nice knowing there’s a guy in the back with the ability to do that. He’s a senior, he’s a very mature kid, and I just have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll have a really good finish to his season here at Utah. We’re trying to hone offensive skills for him, and I think with his conditioning he’ll be able to stay on the floor in longer spurts, which will really help him. I’m interested to see how it all plays out for him, because he’s a game-changer. When you see a guy who’s 7-3… I’ve been floating around the NBA and you just don’t see guys who can move as well as he can at that size, so it’s kind of nice having him back there.
Another big guy who’s about 6-10 is Jason Washburn. He and Dave kind of split minutes in the post in the past, but I’m not sure they couldn’t play at the same time. Unfortunately, Jason’s dealt with a couple of injuries here at times. He hurt his knee in the summer, so he was out of action for about six weeks. Then when we got together here about a month ago to start workouts – lifting, conditioning and everything – he hurt his back, so he’s a little behind everybody else in terms of his conditioning. With a 7-3 guy and a 6-10 post, that’s a pretty reassuring thing having those guys back. And it’s not like they’re back, really, they’re just looking at a different set of coaches and a different bunch of teammates. They’re feeling at home in the surroundings, but we’re all looking at each other with some pretty wide eyes trying to sort some things out. But they’ll be pretty talented.
Then Josh Watkins – they call him ‘Jiggy’ – he’s a point guard returner and he was one of the leading scorers in the Mountain West conference a year ago. Josh is doing pretty well, he’s the other returning senior, he and big Dave, so we’re expecting a lot out of Jiggy and we’re pushing him to be in maybe better condition than he’s been in the past so that he can stay on the floor in longer spurts. We expect him to be a leader for our team.
The fourth player is Chris Hines, who’s a shooting guard, and Chris is doing a nice job as well. He’ll be on the floor as a spot-up shooter and defender. He’s a tough kid and a good teammate.
Those are the four that we’re hoping to build this team around.
Looking at the recent history of the Pac-10/12, you see a lot of guys transferring or jumping to the NBA early. Do you feel like having those older kids could give you a bit of an advantage in dealing with some of the younger teams?
It’s a nice blend, I would say. I’ve been pretty impressed with both of our seniors in terms of leadership, and it’s always kind of a bittersweet thing to me dealing with seniors, because you know it’s coming to an end. Everybody talks about how the college experience is the best four years of your life, and I just want those guys to go out on a good note. It’s usually best to not talk about it much and just work. You tend to earn what you work for and some people call it luck or whatever, but those guys are putting in a nice effort and showing everyone else around here what it takes and maybe giving them a glimpse of the future – just how fast four years goes – and maybe getting those jucos and underclassmen to work as hard as our seniors; assimilating the fact that four years goes pretty quickly and there’s no reason to wait until you’re a senior to work that hard.
As a player and coach, you’ve spent a lot of time west of the Rocky Mountains. Is it still tough to get a kid from back East to consider coming out west?
I think it’s different for every kid. One thing that’s really helped us is this ESPN package for TV. I think there’s a bit more TV going on back east, so a kid can come to one of the top conferences from the east, and with our new contract here, TV wise, parents aren’t going to miss a thing if they do come from the East Coast.
A lot of it is circumstance. Some kids love the idea of getting away from home. If you have a really tight-knit family and a large group, you might want to stay in that environment where you’re comfortable. But we have kids who come from a variety of backgrounds – some single parent homes, and some of these kids just want to get away from home and just start from scratch and begin something new. I’ll tell you, when you’re flying in to Salt Lake with the mountains and how beautiful this campus is, the kids just can’t stop taking pictures and sending them home. There’s a lot to be desired with the quality of living and the scenery around here.
I guess there’s an NBA connection, too.
That’s something we don’t talk about a whole lot, but we’ve been playing with some of the Jazz guys that are over here. They’re obviously in the middle of a lockout, and it’s an NBA town and that always kind of adds to the flavor of your surroundings.
You’ve been hard at work on your 2012 class, as well. Are there aspects of your rebuilding plan that will become easier as you flesh out those future commitments?
We’re involved with an awful lot of good players. You know as well as I do that the success of your program is going to have a lot to do with the players you have in it. You’re an awful lot better coach when you have some players, and we have gotten a couple of commitments here that we’re pretty excited about. There’s a lot more work to be done.
We’ve got a really good player who’s coming back off of a (Mormon) mission named Jeremy Olsen. I’d like to be able to tell you a couple of years from now ‘I told you so’. He’s 6-11 and skilled and real tough. He’s from Georgia. Him and some of the other commitments we got, I think it’s a good start. Everybody’s always excited about their recruiting class, but there’s always a couple who surprise you and a couple that maybe don’t live up to expectations. If we can hit some doubles and triples along the way with recruits and recruit to your style, hopefully you make some breaks for yourself.
When the guys come back from missions, do you find they’re a lot more mature? Does it help them as basketball players?
There’s no doubt about it. It’s just one of those situations where, when you look at what these young men experience, they’re heading abroad typically, putting themselves in an isolated position, and you just can’t help but take a look at yourself and mature a little bit when you’re not in a real comfortable environment. The kids come back certainly more mentally mature, and it may take them a while to get their basketball legs back, but typically a kid’s body matures. There’s been a proven track record of those returned missionaries helping the program. You have a handful of men on the court playing against kids that are still aspiring to be men. Jeremy Olsen, for example, is going to be a 21-year-old freshman. Think about what you’re starting with with a guy like that, and I think it can certainly be an advantage.
Fun stuff that happens when I’m working on jobs that pay:
I don’t know, dude, maybe you should ask him yourself.
Today I emailed the SID at the University of Utah, hoping to speak with new hoops head coach Larry Krystkowiak. Here’s the ensuing email conversation.
Utah Assistant SID: Hi Eric, I will check with Coach K and get back to you soon on what works best for him.
Me: Thanks! Also, does anyone in Durham know you’re calling him Coach K? Kidding.
Utah Assistant SID: We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t hit us with a trademark infringement suit!
I’m never sure (especially via email) if I should go with my instinct to quip. Some suits just aren’t fond of it. But I appreciated that this guy was willing to have a little fun with it.