Utes, Krystkowiak hope rebuilt team will surprise

Utes, Krystkowiak hope rebuilt team will surprise

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) 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.''

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2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

To wrap up the 2017-18 season, we are looking at each player on the Wizards' roster. Today, we evaluate Jodie Meeks' season...

Player: Jodie Meeks

Position: Shooting guard

Age: 30

2017-18 salary: $3.3 million

2017-18 stats: 77 G, 14.5 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 39.9 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%, 49.1 eFG%, 111 ORtg, 112 DRtg

Best game: 11/29 at Sixers - 21 points, 4 rebounds, assist, steal, 5-for-11 FG, 3-for-6 3PT, 8-for-9 FT

Season review: The Wizards took a flier on Jodie Meeks last summer in what seemed at the time to be a low-risk contract with a potentially high reward, if he could stay healthy and play to his career norms. They were in obvious need of help at backup shooting guard and three-point shooting for their bench.

Meeks fell short of those expectations for a variety of reasons. Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he could not make shots at the clip the Wizards were hoping for. His field goal percentage was not far off from what he posted in recent years, but his three-point percentage was nowhere near the 38.8 percent he shot in his previous four seasons.

Meeks bottomed out midseason, shooting 28.9 percent from three in December and 28 percent in January. Those numbers ticked up beginning in February, but Meeks never fully gained the trust of his coaching staff. He rarely got hot enough to alter games and his best stat-lines often came in blowouts. 

There was a domino effect from Meeks' struggles, as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal had no one to spell him. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player this season.

For Meeks personally, it was a bittersweet year because staying healthy was no small feat. He had a run of bad luck and finally broke out of it this season. On the other hand, he never made the impact he felt he was capable of and that wasn't easy for a guy joining a new team and a new locker room.

Meeks' 2017-18 season was ultimately defined by more than his shooting woes. First, he expressed interest in a trade in February and did not get his wish. Then, he was suspended for allegedy using performance-enhancing drugs after the regular season ended. He was out for the playoffs and will miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season without pay as he waits out a 25-game ban.

Meeks may or may not serve that suspension as a member of the Wizards. He has a player option for next season worth $3.5 million. He has yet to inform the team of his decision, but the expectation is that he will pick it up. Given how poorly his season went and ended, it would likely be the smart move financially for him to opt in and hope for better results next season.

Potential to improve: Shooting percentage, perimeter defense, passing

More player season reviews:

John Wall, PG

Bradley Beal, SG

Otto Porter, SF

Markieff Morris, PF

Marcin Gortat, C

Kelly Oubre, Jr., SF

Tomas Satoransky, PG

Ian Mahinmi, C

Ty Lawson, PG

Tim Frazier, PG

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.