APRIL 21 AND April 22, 2014, were not momentous days for college basketball. The biggest stories were that Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall was hired by Tennessee for a rebuilding job that would require patience, and Kentucky's Julius Randle officially stated that he was turning pro (a foregone conclusion that would drop the talent-rich Wildcats to a ... No. 1 preseason ranking). But behind the scenes at Utah, this was the most critical 34-hour stretch of its four-year resuscitation—a campaign that has seen the Utes go from historically awful in coach Larry Krystkowiak's debut season of 2011--12 to a No. 11 ranking this year.
On the morning of the 21st, Utes assistant coach Andy Hill received an email from Martina Poeltl, the head of accounting for Austria's Federal Economic Chamber. Poeltl had, after exchanging 1,000 messages with institutions in the U.S., decided that Utah would be the recipient of a coveted export: her 7-foot, 18-year-old son, Jakob. His exposure on English-language recruiting websites was next to nix, but Hill thought he was a five-star-caliber center who could help the Utes reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. The Utes had put in the work—Hill had discovered Poeltl at FIBA's European U18 B-Division championships in Macedonia in July 2013, and Krystkowiak subsequently made two visits to Vienna—but they also caught a break. Poeltl had initially leaned toward Cal, but the March 31 retirement of Bears coach Mike Montgomery changed the race. (Perhaps it was karma: Krystkowiak starred for Montgomery at Montana in the 1980s.)
Later on the 21st, Krystkowiak and Hill were at Los Angeles's Cathedral High for a game, and they began talking about Utah's most valuable player, 6'5", L.A.-born point guard Delon Wright, who had tweeted in March that he was staying in college for his senior season. He had told the same thing to the coaching staff. Midconversation, Krystkowiak's iPhone buzzed with a text.
"Oh, God," he said upon reading it.
The elation he'd felt about Poeltl's decision disappeared. In its place: nausea. The text was from Wright: "I'm putting my name in the draft."
"Whatever you do," Krystkowiak texted back, "don't call the NBA and make it official. I'm coming back tomorrow." He hardly slept that night, writing notes on a yellow legal pad in preparation for a 2 p.m. meeting with Wright. This was not a coach trying to persuade a lottery pick to spend one more season in college; Wright was a projected second-rounder who had averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 assists and 6.8 rebounds but shot just 22.2% from behind the arc. His whole family—including his older brother, Dorell, a small forward with the Trail Blazers—thought he should stay at Utah, finish his degree and improve his draft stock. Delon has a contrarian streak, however. He had committed to Utah in 2012 against the advice of friends in L.A., and now, as he followed draft news, he believed he was better than several guards who had decided to enter the draft. "I just felt like it was the perfect time to go," he says now.
At the meeting in Krystkowiak's office, the coach told Wright that this was the time for analysis, not emotion. "Staying may not be the easy way," Krystkowiak said, "but it's your best choice." They talked about what Wright still needed to prove to scouts; what Poeltl would bring to the team; and how the exposure of an NCAA tournament run could help Wright's pro prospects. In regard to the Pac-12 race, Krystkowiak said, "With you I think we can win it."
They were scheduled to call the NBA's draft advisory committee at 4 p.m. to gather its input. As the time neared, Wright didn't want to go through with the call. Krystkowiak initially misinterpreted this as defiance. "No," Wright said. "Everything from the last two hours makes sense. I want to come back." Krystkowiak jumped out of his chair, came around his desk and hugged him.
Nine months later Poeltl (8.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 64.1 field goal percentage) is excelling as Utah's starting center and might be a future lottery pick. Wright has been such an efficient stat-sheet stuffer—averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists, with a stunning 129.9 offensive rating—that he's no longer on best-guys-you-haven't-noticed lists. He's a top five candidate for the Wooden Award, and maybe the nation's best all-around guard. He's content with his decision to stay in Salt Lake City. A few of the guards who had caused him to consider entering the draft, he says, didn't even make NBA rosters. He's also proving Krystkowiak's forecast correct: With Wright leading the way, the Utes are tied with preseason favorite Arizona for the Pac-12 lead—and they have a shot to finish with their best record since another transcendent point guard, Andre Miller, led them to the national-title game in 1998.
APPRECIATING THIS Utah team requires grasping how bad it was during the slog of 2011--12. The Utes went 6--25, and their adjusted-efficiency ranking was 297th, the worst of any major-conference team in kenpom.com's database that covers the last 14 seasons. In Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, which is based on scoring margin and schedule strength, the Utes ranked 284th, lower than any major-conference school in history. It was Krystkowiak's first season after being hired away from an assistant job with the Nets; he had just four returning players, and the rest of the roster was cobbled together from recruiting-market leftovers. He then lost his starting center, senior David Foster, to a broken foot in the exhibition opener (an inauspicious loss to Division II Adams State). That January, after more injuries and a 40-point loss at Colorado that sent the Utes to 3--10, Krystkowiak announced he would hold walk-on tryouts to find reinforcements.
"We got inundated with emails and calls," says assistant coach Tommy Connor, who was assigned to vet the hopefuls. They took one—junior Ryan Osterloh, a business major and former All-State guard at nearby Skyline High who'd been playing in rec leagues—but it was indicative of the state of the program that many students thought they could help despite answering "No" when asked, "Did you play any high school basketball?" As the losses stacked up and the season deteriorated further—leading scorer Josh (Jiggy) Watkins was kicked off the team on Jan. 18 for missing practices—Krystkowiak avoided losing his mind by adhering to a mantra from his Montana boyhood: Keep chopping wood. His older brother, Bernie, was more demonstrative, sparring with fans in the comments sections of a Utah blog, BlockU.com. "My brother is a damn fine coach and your bile is bull----," Bernie responded to one jab early that season. "Get on board or get off the train!"
The train was moving, albeit slowly. On the first day that he had been allowed to recruit after being hired on April 3, 2011, Krystkowiak went to West Jordan High to see junior small forward Jordan Loveridge, who'd been told by Utah's previous coach, Jim Boylen, that he wasn't a Pac-12-level player. Krystkowiak offered Loveridge a scholarship later that day; he ascended into the national top 100 recruiting rankings the following summer, committed to the Utes and became a Day One starter—and valuable wing scorer—in 2012--13. He and fellow freshman Brandon Taylor, an L.A. point guard with a high defensive IQ, helped Utah finish 15--18 that season. Wright, who was recruited out of City College of San Francisco, arrived the following season and lifted the Utes to the NIT. Their 21--12 record included eight losses by four points or less—a problem that Krystkowiak thought could be remedied with some lessons about toughness and communication.
In September, Krystkowiak brought in two former Navy SEALs to put the Utes through a "hell weekend," during which they were subjected to grueling, team-oriented training exercises. Wright says the process made Krystkowiak, who'd wanted to be a military man before his height (6'9") got in the way, "so excited, it was like he was a kid again." Krystkowiak continues to refer to the SEALs during practice, particularly with regard to defensive precision. During an uncharacteristic breakdown in a practice earlier this month, he stopped a drill and said, "I'm not saying much today, but when I am, you've gotta be listening. Good thing we're not Navy SEALs, because we'd all have our asses shot up right now." The Utes have mostly absorbed the message: Their predominantly man-to-man defense ranks sixth in the nation in efficiency on the strength of disciplined ball-screen coverage, Wright's knack for anticipating passes (he ranks 29th in steal percentage) and Poeltl's reach (he ranks 54th in block percentage). Their biggest win to date was a 69--68 white-knuckler over No. 8 Wichita State on Dec. 3, in which they got three key stops in overtime, and Wright—who had faltered in clutch moments as a junior—hit the go-ahead bucket with 14 seconds left.
AMONG THE questions Krystkowiak asked Wright during their April 22 meeting was, "Is there any part of you that wants to finish this for the program?" Wright stayed to complete Utah's revival—and his own academic comeback. On Dec. 19, Wright handed in a test in a research methods class that completed requirements for his sociology degree, setting him up to be the second college graduate in his family. (His mother, Stacy, an LAPD property officer, received a degree from the University of Phoenix last summer.) Those close to Wright are stunned by his academic progress; just three years earlier, his father and Dorell warned him that he was on the verge of blowing his hoops career due to his poor grades.
His on-court success has not been a surprise. In the summer of 2013, Wright played on a summer league team with Dorell and Chris Young, a former assistant at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., the Wrights' alma mater, and wowed them by scoring 17 points against a squad that featured the Pacers' Paul George and the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan. "The light had switched on," says Young, who also coached the late-blooming Russell Westbrook at Leuzinger. "It was like with Russell, where you could see it in his eyes. We watched Delon and were like, Is he about to get really, really good?"
Young had questioned whether Utah was the right place for Wright, feeling he was capable of starring for a program with a more recent tradition of winning. The thinking was, if he could light up a summer league team against pros, why not join a title contender? "Delon heard that and brushed it off as calmly as he plays," Young says. "His expression was like, Chill out. I've got this."
Wright listened to this recollection following a Jan. 4 win over UCLA. "What I would tell people back then was, I can see myself at Utah," he says. He's admired—especially by the coaching staff—as a point guard with great basketball instincts, and from the start, Wright had a notion that the Utes could thrive with him as the playmaker. "And just look," he says, "where we're at now."
Many students thought they could help the program despite answering "No" when asked, "Did you play any high school basketball?"
Photograph by Greg Nelson For Sports Illustrated
RISING SENIOR Wright's decision to stay in school improved his draft stock and has positioned him to land with a degree in sociology.
Photograph by Greg Nelson For Sports Illustrated
FOREIGN AID Poeltl (42), a 7-footer from Austria, has helped Krystkowiak's Utes become title contenders for the first time in 16 seasons.
RUSS ISABELLA/USA TODAY SPORTS (KRYSTKOWIAK)