As a recently assembled Utah mens basketball team settles in to its season, fans are getting a glimpse of a team that may be able to compete with the mid-level conference teams as Pac-12 play looms just around the corner.
According to forward Renan Lenz, the team is in the exact same position.
"I think that we are still getting to know each other. We had Brazil, and that was good for getting to know each other personally, and a little bit for basketball," he explained. "But that is not many games, and now we only have nine games together, and we are starting to see what we could do as a team. When we first came together, I thought we could be pretty good, but I didn't really know how it would all fit."
After a big 104-47 win over DIII Williamette, no one knew what to make of the Utes, or how much weight to place on the win. While most were reasonable, it was hard to overlook a 100+ offensive performance, especially considering Utah's offensive woes over the past few seasons.
The Utes followed up with a disappointing home loss to Sacramento State by a margin of three points, after leading by 13 points at the 12:27 mark of the second half, leaving most more confused than ever. The Utes would have to wait five days to get back on the court with another opponent as host of their own Thanksgiving tournament, and came back with three straight wins.
Hitting the road for the first time of the season, the Utes split the two game swing, dropping one at SMU and beating Texas State. All three of Utah's losses have come by a combined 12 points, leaving fans to view them, and the season as either half glass full, or half glass empty, depending on one's personal perspective.
Returning home, Larry Krystkowiak's team defeated a perceptively formidable Boise State team, fresh off an upset of then-ranked No. 11 Creighton before dropping a four point heart-breaker on the road at perennial power Michigan State.
The Runnin' Utes followed up with a heart-breaking three-point loss of their own at BYU later in the week, representing their best showing against the Cougars in several contests spanning several seasons.
Through the ups and downs at different points through the young season, the end result is the same: nobody really knows how good, or bad this team actually is. According to Lenz, it isn't so much about the wins, or the losses, though wins are naturally preferred.
"Every game for us is a bonus. We're still getting to know each other, learning from every game and getting better. We're trying to win, obviously, but it's just the experience of playing together that we need right now," he said. "We're learning something from every game, and then working on the issues that come out of it, fix it and move on to the next thing. We're squeezing every learning opportunity out of every game right now."
While the Utes savored every game experience, Lenz says this solid week of practice, without a single game, was crucial for the Utes.
"It has hard at the beginning just practicing for weeks with no opponent, but after facing a few, and finding out where we needed to improve, this week was absolutely positive for us," said the Brazilian native. "We needed time to work on our own stuff, and not worry so much about the opponents' stuff. This was time that we spent to work on the details, like how to take better care of the ball and some of the things we've been struggling with."
Many questioned the Utes' intentional decision not to schedule a game for an entire week, but as the Utes embark on a crucial three-game stretch just prior to Pac-12 play, Lenz acknowledged how much a strong close to the pre-season would carry his team into conference play.
"In sports, momentum is always important. And confidence, but again for us, it's a chance to build more chemistry. These games are good for us knowing each other more and as a team, we're starting to buy in," he said. "A lot of the things we've been working so hard on are starting to show up in games, and pay off. So putting it all together for a full 40 minutes in the last three games would be a huge thing for our team."
Certainly, with more wins already than in all of the 2011-12 season, things are trending up for Utah basketball with some fans also starting to buy-in to the new coaching staff. Krystkowiak and staff are beginning to gain the confidence and favor of finicky, skeptical Ute fans and they're doing it with solid, consistent defense, if nothing else.
Part of the overall success, according to Lenz, stems simply from time playing together, which fosters trust.
"We're starting to rely on each other, and learning to trust each other, especially on defense. [Trust] is an important key, because you can learn how to play with your teammates, but that doesn't mean the trust is necessarily there. That's something that takes time," Lenz reflected. "Right now, that is starting to come for us, and the better we play in some of those kinds of games, or the adversity we face just helps to build that in the team. Literally, every situation for us both positive and negative is a positive. It's just experience, and we need as much of it as we can get."
For Lenz personally, he is gaining both experience and trust in his own right, and it's starting to pay dividends. Averaging just 9.9 minutes per game, Lenz' time isn't necessarily increasing, but his time on the court is growing more and more productive.
"I'm starting to feel a lot more comfortable with a lot of things, and I feel like the team is starting to trust me a lot more right now. That's huge for me because it's something you have to earn, and I have been working hard to earn that," he beamed. "Respect and trust is earned, and not given. I felt very supported by my team, and I felt like they wanted me to succeed, but I wasn't there yet. I've just been working through that, and now I feel like I'm starting to get over the wall."
Most notably, his defensive effort has been the most obvious improvement, which has then sparked his offensive output, playing out exactly as Krystkowiak laid out for his team as a whole.
In the BYU game, his five points came at crucial intervals, when the Utes were having trouble scoring in the second half. His few, but crucial eight minutes gave the Utes a lift in the contest at a point where the Utes struggled to find an answer against a BYU 3-2 zone.
"I thought that game was a big step up for me, especially in terms of confidence and knowing that my team is trusting me more," Lenz admitted. "It is starting to feel more natural, and I am feeling a lot more comfortable with the team. For me, these last two or three weeks have been great."
The game against BYU also showed just how crucial Lenz' role is, with Dallin Bachynski on the bench in foul trouble, the Utes looked to Lenz to step in. Though Bachynski and Lenz have very different games, making that adjustment is something Lenz is actively working on.
"My role has changed from last year, because I'm at a higher level now and I'll be going up against some big guys in the Pac-12. I used to body up on people in the post, but I am feeling like I can't do that here, and I have to get a lot stronger. I need to be quicker, too, to stop guys from driving, so this is another adjustment for me," he revealed. "Conditioning has been the number one thing I've been working on, and that's coming along. I'm starting to get up and down the court, and I'm able to run. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm closer. I'll keep working on that, and on getting stronger and it will start to come. I can feel myself getting closer."