For the University of Utah mens basketball team and first year head coach Larry Krystkowiak, the 2011-2012 season was entirely forgettable.
While the first year coach knew times would be tough for his rapidly-put-together team, no one could have imagined a Utah basketball season that would net just six wins. While that team lacked nothing in the heart and desire categories, the truth was that it lacked in almost everything else necessary to compete in the Pac-12. But that was last season.
"We've had some meetings here lately where, we've decided there isn't going to be any loser talk," Krystkowiak redirected after being asked to make a comparison between last year's squad, and this year's team. "Last season we had a lot of guys who had heart, and battled. They won six ball games, and they got better every day from the start to finish. But we're excited about the team we have now, and we're going to focus on that."
Knowing how hard his players played for him last season made it that much harder for Krystkowiak to let so many members of that team go at the end of the season. However, with his NBA background, Krystkowiak injects elements of the professional game into the college game, as senior guard Cedric Martin can attest.
Martin is one of a very few remnants of last season's squad to carry over to the 2012-2013 team.
"It was a business decision. I just held my head up high, and waited for Coach [Krystkowiak] to give me his approval, and tell me I could stay," said Martin of the process which led to his invitation to rejoin the team. "Coach is a business man, and everyone made their business decisions. I made mine, and that was to stay. That was the best decision to me."
Now that all the decisions have been made, the Utes look ahead to a season which has been helped along significantly by the trip to Brazil that the Runnin' Utes made over the summer.
More than wins and losses, every Ute on the roster made much of the opportunity the trip afforded them to learn and grow as a team.
"Brazil was, I'd like to say team bonding, but it turned into family bonding. We played basketball games together, we argued with each other and had our ups and downs," said Martin of the summer trip with his new teammates. "We had a chance to know each other and everything that goes into that, and we had a chance to get all of that stuff out of the way."
Senior center Jason Washburn echoed Martin's sentiments.
"I don't think words can really [describe] how valuable that trip was," Washburn summarized his experience in Brazil. "We learned some things about our team, both on and off the court."
These type of comments are typical of players, however, coming from an experienced player at coach at all levels of the game, Krystkowiak's observations of his team's evolution through the course of that apparently critical trip to Brazil hold great weight.
"I also liked the teamwork, and camaraderie because its one thing to compete on the court and try to gain the minutes, and out-do the guy you're guarding," observed Krystkowiak. "But the minute we leave the court, I've never really been around a group of guys, at a lot of different levels, that seem to really like each other and spend a lot of time together."
With a new-look team, Krystkowiak and the Utes have their work cut out for them as they identify a starting line-up and off-the-bench rotation over the next three weeks before their first game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Krystkowiak's philosophy is to "set the table" and allow his team to just play in that time.
"It's going to be kind of a survival of the fittest type of thing," said Krystkowiak. "The cream is going to rise to the top."
However, establishing a starting line up won't be as simple as that. The Utes will need to see some players step up and establish consistency in their performances, as well as take on leadership roles, which Krystkowiak notes hasn't yet happened.
"In our four games [in Brazil], we had four different leading scorers, so we had a lot of balance. We had four, almost five guys who averaged in double figures," recalled Krystkowiak. "With the number of young guys, the key to success is consistency."
While balance is both positive and necessary, too much of it can also hamper a team, and the Utes will look for the players that can score game in and game out.
"You're looking for a guy that can play well one day, and then bring it the next day and the next," Krystkowiak continued. "Right now, we've got a lot of guys that are on a bit of a roller coaster with putting up a good performance one day, and not so much the next day."
This season, the Utes feel much more confident in their ability to compete, simply because of their newly acquired depth at all positions.
"I think competition is good, and we've got some guys that are going to push each other in practice and we've got guys who can play multiple positions," stated Krystkowiak. "Like I said, it's a survival of the fittest kind of deal."
"This season, we have shooters, we guys who can handle the ball, we have guys who can defend, and we have bigs," observed senior guard Cedric Martin. "This year, I feel that we have more, and better puzzle pieces than we had last year."
Martin, among others emphasized the versatility of the post players in particular.
"We just have more of every position, which is creating a lot of competition. We have more players that can play more than just their one position," he said. "Especially our bigs, because some of those guys can also play wing if the need to, so it's just something we didn't really have last season."
"There's nothing from a coaching perspective like having a guy on the bench if you've got a guy on the court that's not playing well, you've got a little bit of a hammer," Krystkowiak said as he discussed the luxury of having depth, something he did not enjoy in his first season with the Utes. "If you're not getting it done, then we've got someone to bring in. I think that's healthy for a team."
The Utes have struggled most with having enough effective post players in recent history, having as few as a single post player in Jason Washburn at times. This year, a shortage of post players shouldn't be a worry, even with the absence of center David Foster, who has retired from collegiate basketball due to yet another foot injury this off-season.
"We've got five post players in my mind right now," revealed Krystkowiak.
That number includes native Utahn Jordan Loveridge, who will primarily play the four position, but can step in to play some five, if necessary.
At 6-foot-6, Loveridge has less than ideal size, but under certain circumstances, he could prove effective in the paint if called upon.
"Jordan does a nice job [in the post]. He's quicker than a lot of big guys, and he's established some range, that will allow him to stretch the court a little bit," said Krystkowiak of his highly touted freshman. "I thought he had a productive summer last year, playing in the post. It's our jobs as coaches to put all these guys in positions to succeed. He's a ways away from playing small forward."