SALT LAKE CITY — All the apologists aside, losing another player off the Utah men’s basketball team continues to thwart the program’s desire to finally get back into the NCAA Tournament.
To say otherwise is ridiculous. Both Gach’s decision to leave with two years of eligibility remaining is the latest blow to a program that hasn’t made the tournament in four years.
Gach, who would be a junior this upcoming season, was second on the team in scoring at 10.7 points a game in what was an inconsistent and likely disappointing season. Utah finished at 16-15 and tied for eighth place in the Pac-12 at 7-11, making it Larry Krystkowiak’s worst record since his second season in 2012-13.
Inheriting a proud program that was in shambles, Krystkowiak needed only four years to get Utah into the Sweet 16. He followed it up by reaching the round of 32 the next season before embarking on the current four-year decline.
With a nucleus that included mostly freshmen and two sophomores, the Utes were expected to suffer growing pains this past season as the group matured. The script played out virtually as predicted, with the team going winless all nine conference road games.
“I don’t think the theme was consistent short of it’s the next play mentality,” Krystkowiak said in an interview with The Zone Sports Network last month before Gach’s decision. “Sometimes things get out of hand, and I think that also happens a little bit when you’ve got a younger squad that hasn’t experienced some things. Things in conference this year were difficult.”
Combined with an excellent recruiting class, Utah is expected to make significant progress next season. While improvement is still likely, replacing a veteran with more freshmen probably won’t help the situation.
The adage in college basketball is to grow old, meaning experienced upperclassmen are vital to success. Look no further than BYU, whose senior-laden team would have made the tournament this season if it not had been canceled.
Utah’s latest defection is an on-going problem that has seen several rotation players transfer in recent years. The transient nature of the roster has inhibited the team’s ability to grow old, leading to substandard results.
Young and inexperienced only goes so far in placating the masses. As would be expected, attendance at Utah home games has plummeted compared to seasons in which it had NCAA Tournament teams.
In the process, Krystkowiak’s job security has become an issue as he tries to get the program back on track. His immediate two predecessors, Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen, both were fired only two years after getting their teams to the NCAA Tournament.
But as easy as it is to blame the coach for the program’s shortcomings, Utah is far from alone in losing players. Undergraduate and graduate transferring has become widespread in basketball.
“There’s a little something that correlates with our culture right now,” Krystkowiak said. “Sometimes it’s easy to pack up your bag and go try it somewhere else.”
Former BYU coach Dave Rose can relate to Krystkowiak’s plight. Several players left the program early in his last four years, contributing to four consecutive seasons of not making the tournament.
A prevailing me-first attitude has permeated the game, Rose noticed. Krystkowiak points out it even has infiltrated the NBA with players leaving teams to chase championships.
“Everybody is so focused on themselves first (and) the team second,” Rose said. “All I really tried to do during the whole 36 years I was coaching was trying to make guys put the team first and then themselves second, and then success of the team would bring them all they wanted.
“In reality I’ve always felt like the most important thing was what’s best for your team. And if you play it that way, that success of your team will guide you in the future.”