(AP) – Since Larry Krystkowiak arrived as Utah’s head coach four years ago, the Utes have improved every season, going from six to 21 wins.
If that trajectory continues, they could return to their glory days of the 1990s that culminated in an NCAA championship game appearance.
But the 25th-ranked Utes don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves or look past Friday night’s opener against a Ball State team that won just five games last season.
They’ve yet to advance in the NCAA tournament since the Andrew Bogut-led squad in 2005. And last season Utah was embarrassed in the first round of the NIT after a 21-11 regular season.
This season, the Utes return so much firepower that they were picked second in the Pac-12 behind perennial powerhouse and second-ranked Arizona. Many say do-everything senior guard Delon Wright could lead the Utes to that breakthrough.
“I said before Delon played a game here that I think he’s a classic definition of a stat-sheet stuffer, where he steals, blocks shots, assists, and obviously has the ability to score,” said Krystkowiak, who was proven correct when Wright averaged 16.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and led the team in steals and blocks in conference games – all while shooting nearly 52 percent.
In order for Utah to move near the top of the conference, and beyond, Wright will be asked to do even more.
“He’s gotten stronger and put on weight,” Krystkowiak said. “Shooting ability, I have no question in my mind that he’s going to be consistent from the perimeter. Finally, the most important thing is his ability to now be a leader.”
Even though Wright shot over 56 percent on the season, defenders began sagging off to clog his driving lanes. He shot 22 percent from 3-point range and that has become his one liability as he readies himself for the NBA draft.
“I shot a lot in the summer in Utah, and back at home; just having more confidence in my shot, that’s pretty much the biggest thing I’m working on,” Wright said.
As good as he is, Wright won’t have to do it alone. Nearly all of the major contributors from last season’s team are back. Forward Jordan Loveridge (14.7 points per game) and guard Brandon Taylor (10.6) provided offensive punch at key moments and center Dallin Bachynski will return in the post.
Loveridge, who was required to play the power forward spot early in his career, lost weight so he can play more on the wing. After touring with the Pac-12 All-Star team in China over the summer, he also refined his outside shooting stroke.
The 7-foot Bachynski dominated at times and disappeared at others. If the big man can consistently contribute in the post and on the boards, the pressure on Wright and Loveridge will ease.
The light turnover is one of the reasons the conference’s annual media poll predicts Utah to finish so high.
“Just shows how much we’ve come along the past couple years. I think we just have to go out and live up to that. We’re not buying too much into it. We’re about going out there and trying to get some of those wins,” Wright said.
Ball State comes into Salt Lake City with just one senior on the roster in forward Matt Kamieniecki, and he missed all of 2013-14 with an injury as the team finished 5-25 – 0-16 on the road – in its first season under coach James Whitford.
The Cardinals will begin this season without junior guard Jeremiah Davis, who will miss eight to 10 weeks after injuring his right foot in practice Oct. 28.
Zavier Turner, the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year, and fellow sophomore Franko House return as starters. Turner was second on the team with 12.1 points per game.
“We want the guys in our program to be significantly improved from season to season, and I think you’ll see that,” Whitford said. “The guys in our program coming back have made significant strides.”
Utah beat visiting Ball State 88-69 last Nov. 27 behind 23 points, seven assists and five steals from Wright. Turner led the Cardinals with 15 points.