SALT LAKE CITY — The worst season in Utah basketball history was over but the hurt only continued for coach Larry Krystkowiak, whose March Madness included painful knee replacement surgery.
Seven months later, Krystkowiak has a new joint and virtually a new team, one that bears little resemblance to the squad that finished 6-25 overall, 3-15 in Pac-12 Conference play and just 6-9 at the Huntsman Center to snap a run of 38 consecutive seasons with a winning record at home.
“It’s a new day,” said Krystkowiak.
The second-year coach acknowledges this actually feels like a real college basketball team, especially after a summer trip to Brazil helped the team bond.
“We have six guys that are my size; last year we had one,” he said. “We have a lot of different point guard options and wings. We’ve got a much more competitive team and if the coaches don’t screw it up, we’ll have a chance.”
With that comment, he let out a laugh, something that was rare last year as the team he tried to piece together after numerous defections struggled to get untracked — losing eight of nine to open the season and 11 of 12 to close it.
“The reality is we had a year to recruit all these guys,” he said of his current squad. “We had about a month to recruit the other guys.”
Only two starters remain from last year — center Jason Washburn and 6-foot-4 shooting guard Cedric Martin. Eight others either left or were shown the door, leaving room for Krystkowiak to bring in seven freshmen or junior-college transfers, with 11 new faces in all.
Local product Jordan Loveridge is among those, even though the freshman forward saw some of the carnage at Utah home games last season.
He brushed off the poor record, and preferred to focus on the new recruits and coaching staff.
Krystkowiak insisted it wasn’t hard to recruit some top players despite the ugly record last season.
“This isn’t a place that’s never won, and there’s a really proud tradition here,” Krystkowiak said of a university that has claimed 29 conference titles, made 27 NCAA appearances and is the 12th-winningest program of all time. “We’re in a great league and if you want to be part of re-establishing something, come and join us.”
The 6-foot-10 Washburn, who led the Utes in scoring and rebounding last season, doesn’t regret his decision to return. And his expectations are simple: to win.
“I look back on my four years and the thing that sticks out to me is that I’ve never had a winning season,” said Washburn. “Sometimes we’ve had the pieces, sometimes we haven’t. Things have always gone wrong at the worst times, and halfway through people were saying, ‘Well, we’re playing for next year.’ For me, there is no next year.”
Krystkowiak actually used the word depth when talking about his team, saying his rotation could be nine or 10 deep.
Washburn sees it already.
“Every position overall is better,” said Washburn, who averaged 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. “If one of the bigs comes out, there’s another big to replace him this year. We’ve got more than one guard who can handle the ball, distribute the ball, shoot the ball.”
Glen Dean, who redshirted last year after transferring from Eastern Washington, and Loyola Marymount transfer Jarred DuBois will battle at point guard.
The 6-6 Loveridge also is a player to watch because of his versatility. “The kid can score in so many ways,” Washburn said. “He’s physical, athletic — a rare type of basketball player because he can do it all.”
Brazilian power forward Renan Lenz, who transferred from Arizona Western, has become a leader by example because of his skills and hard work.
Another player expected to have an immediate impact is 6-11 sophomore center Dallin Bachynski, a Calgary native who transferred from Southern Utah.
“He keeps getting better,” Krystkowiak said of Bachynski. “He’s coachable and plays at a higher energy level than anybody on our team.”
Despite the rebuilt roster, Utah is still picked to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 again. Players don’t care.
“I really feel like we’re in a position to surprise a lot of people,” said Martin, who averaged 7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds last season.
They might not see it in preseason because of a weak schedule, he said, “But when we go to league play, a lot of people are going to be surprised.”
Krystkowiak hopes so, especially after admittedly going to a “pretty dark place” in his basement to deal with the pain of the season and surgery.
“It was just kind of a blur,” he said of coping with pain and pain meds. “I vaguely remember watching March Madness and just wanted to speed up the clock a little bit to get through it.”