SALT LAKE CITY — Going off Craig Smith's remarks at his introductory press conference, either Larry Krystkowiak was horrible as Utah's basketball coach or his successor is an expert at hyperbole.
"I think we have a great nucleus," Smith said shortly after being announced as Utah's new coach.
That nucleus has taken a major hit in recent days with the departures of Timmy Allen and Alfonso Plummer, the program's two leading scorers the past season. Both players have entered the transfer portal and could also seek opportunities in professional basketball.
The problem is, even with both players, the program had sunk to the level that led to athletic director Mark Harlan's decision to make the coaching change in the midst of a pandemic that resulted in a $30 million budget shortfall. Not even Krystkowiak's nearly $7 million buyout during a financial hardship was enough to deter Harlan.
Krystkowiak did a masterful job of rebuilding the proud Utah program, reaching the Sweet 16 in his fourth year after starting out with two consecutive losing seasons. But he failed to sustain enough success after Utah advanced to the round of 32 in 2016, the program's last NCAA appearance.
Along the way, players transferred out at a rate that clearly impeded the program's attempts to earn tournament berths. Allen and Plummer, who could possibly return, are the latest examples with more likely to come this spring.
To say a program on a steep decline has a great nucleus is a bit of an overstatement, but that's the essence of the new coach. It's also why Harlan made an excellent choice in hiring Smith away from Utah State.
The 48-year-old Smith brings a bundle of energy and boundless enthusiasm, character traits the stagnant Utah program desperately needs. This is a program that not too long ago packed the Huntsman Center to create a great environment but now has been forced to place curtains over the upper bowl to bury the empty seats.
Not that any of this bothers Smith, who resurrected a doormat Utah State program that made the NCAA Tournament in each of his three years in Logan. Nevermind that the Utes haven't even made the NIT the last three seasons, Smith expects to extend his personal NCAA streak to four next March.
"We have incredible expectations for this program every year our goal is to get the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there," he said. "That will be our goal next year and we're not going to settle for anything less than that."
And why would he?
Smith has proven adept as a quick fixer, building programs in short order. Besides going 74-24 at Utah State, he won 28 games in his second season at Mayville State and captured the Summit League title in his third year at South Dakota.
"I'm very confident in what we've done in our past whether it's Utah State, the University of South Dakota or Mayville State as a head coach," he said. "We've always taken over programs that maybe were kind of average or below average and be able to flip it and flip quicker than people realized."
Meeting with the players after getting the job, Smith let them know the program has all it needs to win. He pointed out the outstanding tradition, facilities and support.
All it needs now is an influx of talent.
"I think we have a great nucleus here that we can build upon," Smith said. "I think our style of play really fits a lot of these guys that are currently in the program. I think they have a chance to really shine in a way that maybe they don't even realize at this point."
As virtually every new coach says in his initial remarks, Smith intends to hire a great staff capable of recruiting nationally with the purpose of winning the right way. He also wants to play a strong nonconference schedule with the intent to play in-state schools apparently on some rotating basis.
"This state loves and is passionate about basketball," Smith said.
"I think it's important to play the state schools. Now are we going to play every school every year — no. It's just not feasible and, quite frankly, that might not be the best situation for us to set ourselves up for success to get to the NCAA Tournament."
During the 1990s, when the program annually made deep runs in the tournament, Utah regularly played Utah State and Weber State on a home-and-home basis. But the Utes no longer play those two programs at home, let alone on the road.