Washington St Utah Basketball

Utah forward Jakob Poeltl (42) goes to the basket for a dunk during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team finished Pac-12 play with a 13-5 record and made it all the way to the Pac-12 Tournament championship game.

On Sunday, the Utes were selected as a third seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face Fresno State in the first round.

Just imagine how different things would have been if Jakob Poeltl hadn’t returned for his sophomore year.

According to a bleacher report article, he was a projected mid-first round draft pick last year.

I suppose you can’t really know for sure, but it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest the season — which started with question marks following the departure of Delon Wright to the NBA — would have gone much differently (and not nearly so positively) had Poeltl elected to enter the NBA draft as well.

It certainly doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after Poeltl won the Pac-12 Player of the Year award.

The numbers say everything about Poeltl’s impact.

Poeltl averaged almost a full eight points per 40 minutes more this year as a sophomore than last year (improving from 15.7 to 23.2). His free throw percentage improved drastically (up from 44.4 percent to 68.9 percent), and he averaged more than one full assist more (2.5 assists per 40 minutes as a sophomore compared to 1.2 as a freshman).

He didn’t record nearly as many blocks this year (down from 3.2 per 40 minutes to 2.1), but he was called for considerably fewer fouls (down from 4.1 per 40 minutes to 3.1).

He also improved in rebounds, steals and turnovers, although the differences weren’t nearly as overwhelming.

Despite losing Wright, Utah actually averaged more points per Pac-12 regular season game than it did a year ago (up from 69.4 points per game to 73.2 points per game).

I’m sure Utah fans don’t need a whole lot of help realizing how fortunate they were to see Poeltl in the red and white this year, but just to add perspective, take a look at what’s going on up in Seattle right now.

The University of Washington men’s basketball team is facing the very real possibility that two of its top freshmen this year (Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss) could bolt for the NBA.

I’m not sure anyone really expects them to stay.

The fact is, it’s really hard to convince a young college student who is told he can play in the NBA that he should delay for a year. For what? To help the college team do better? Why does the player owe that? So that he can improve and be even more ready when he enters the NBA? It’s not like jumping to the NBA means a player can no longer improve. Sure, the bench may become your best friend, but if you work hard and do as your told, you stand a good chance of doing well.

Meanwhile, every college game played provides the risk of a career-ending injury that would kill an enormous payday.

Somehow, Poeltl was convinced to stay. Despite his draft projection, he chose to remain at Utah.

Next week Utah will be in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. These opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted, and the fact that the Utes have been led there by a player who could have been gone after last year is nothing short of a blessing for the fans.

Contact Standard-Examiner sports reporter Ryan Comer at rcomer@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanComerSe and on Facebook.

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