Asked recently if he worried more about his Utah basketball team’s offense or defense at this stage, coach Larry Krystkowiak described himself as equally concerned about each side.
The answer became more apparent Wednesday night, when good defense kept the Utes going in an 88-47 defeat of Division II opponent Texas-Tyler in an exhibition game at the Huntsman Center.
The “88” is deceiving, because the Ute starters returned for a late run that pushed the score considerably higher. The “47” also will be difficult to repeat against Division I opponents, but there are signs that the Utes will be improved defensively over last season.
“Defensively, there’s principles that we go over every day, so I think that’s maybe more dialed in than the offense would be,” said sophomore forward Riley Battin. “But that will just come with more reps and more time on the court.”
One way or another, more answers regarding this team will come in Tuesday’s season opener at Nevada. “I’m nervous about everything,” Krystkowiak said, again. “That’s just kind of the nature of it. You don’t know when and where you might get exposed, what areas you need to work on. So we’re just trying to encompass as much of it as possible and make as few errors as possible and, hopefully, our open shots go in and we can be competitive and win some games.”
Open shots were tough to find and even more difficult to make in the first half against Tyler’s aggressive defense, even though Utah took a 38-20 lead. The Utes went 1 of 10 from 3-point range, then missed their first two attempts of the second half before making 6 of their last 11 shots — thanks mostly to the reserves.
The starters will have to manufacture points with offensive rebounding and transition baskets. Otherwise, they will struggle to keep up with efficient opponents. Improved defense will help, of course.
It was a big deal in a Pac-12 game last January when Both Gach, Timmy Allen and Battin combined for 40 points as freshmen. Utah will need that from them every night, as happened Wednesday, in the absence of Sedrick Barefield and other scorers from last season.
The encouraging part was Utah’s holding Tyler to 31.1-percent shooting from the field, while guard Ty Glover led the Patriots with 17 points in only 14 minutes. His teammates combined for only 13 field goals in 50 attempts. Tyler, coached by former Utah State assistant coach Louis Wilson, will play another exhibition game Friday at BYU, then return to Utah next week to open the regular season vs. Westminster College and Dixie State University.
After five weeks of preseason practice, the Utes will rest for a couple of days, then practice intensely Saturday through Monday in advance of their opener. Krystkowiak liked being able to use 11 players for 11-plus minutes Wednesday, keeping the depth chart competitive.
As Battin said, “This is more than half the team’s first time playing a college basketball game. I know it’s not a road game like Nevada will be, but even playing in a game like this is good for guys to get their feet wet and just get used to it.”
Beyond the three sophomores (the team’s most experienced players), freshman center Branden Carlson and freshman guard Rylan Jones started Wednesday, as expected. Jones played 18 minutes, despite reinjuring his ankle in Tuesday’s practice, and repeatedly drew charging fouls from the Patriots. Carlson posted 10 points and nine rebounds; Allen and Battin also had eight boards each.