SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Climbing the basketball ladder in the Pac-12 Conference has not been an easy task for Utah.
Year one was all about survival. Year two centered on becoming more competitive. Now in their third season, the Utes feel ready to take a major leap forward.
Utah is eager to prove last season's strong finish — which featured a run to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals — is merely an opening chapter for an even greater success story this season.
"We have a lot more talent," sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge said. "We're a lot bigger this year. Of course, I feel like we need to win more games. It's a must. That's what everyone wants. That's what I want. That's our ultimate goal — just to win more games."
Utah made its biggest impact on defense a season ago. The Utes allowed 63.2 points per game, ranking second in the Pac-12 in that category behind Washington State. Utah also ranked second in field goal percentage defense (.398) and third in 3-pointer percentage defense (.332).
But that did not translate into much success on offense. The Utes ranked last in the league in scoring, producing just 64.2 points per game.
Scoring points should be less of an obstacle this season. Utah aims to put the running back in Runnin' Utes with a new up-tempo offense. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak feels confident he can loosen the reins on offense because his roster features much more talent and depth than the program has had at any time during the past few seasons.
"We've talked a lot about running," Krystkowiak said. "Everybody wants to run. If you went to any team — 6th grade team, college team, NBA team - and said, 'Hey, who in here wants to run?', you would see a lot of guys dislocate their shoulders raising their hand. Fans want to see it. Coaches like to be a part of it. Players want to be a part of it."
One thing that won't change is Utah's rugged defensive identity it established a year ago. The Utes remain committed to shutting teams down.
"Our defensive principles still remain the same," sophomore point guard Brandon Taylor said. "Some things might change since we're going out and running. But no matter what it is, we're still conditioning and still good for what we're doing defensively."
Five things to watch for with the Utah Utes during the 2013-14 season:
SUPER SOPHOMORE: Utah was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. Exceeding expectations will hinge on how much Loveridge can build on a strong freshman season. Loveridge is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder. He averaged 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds a year ago. Loveridge dropped some weight in the offseason to improve his explosiveness off the dribble and quickness on defense.
GUARD FIREPOWER: The Utes will not be lacking playmakers in the backcourt. Sophomore point guard Brandon Taylor is a returning starter with Loveridge. Junior college transfer Delon Wright is also expected to be an impact player. Wright led the City College of San Francisco in blocks, steals and assists last season and could play a similar stat stuffer role at Utah.
HOME COOKING: Getting off to a fast start should not be a problem for Utah. The Utes leave their home state just once before conference play - traveling to face Mountain West contender Boise State on Dec. 3. The Utes will play 13 of their first 14 games in Salt Lake City.
FAMILIAR FACES: For the first time in several seasons, the transfer bug did not decimate Utah's roster before a new season. Loveridge and Taylor are returning starters and four other players who saw significant playing time in 2012-13 — Jeremy Olsen, Dallin Bachynski, Renan Lenz and Dakari Tucker — also return.
AUTOMATIC POINTS: If Utah's up-tempo offense draws more trips to the free throw line, it could be a major problem for opponents. The Utes led the Pac-12 last season in free throw percentage, going 413 of 547 (.755) from the line as a team. Loveridge is the top returning free throw shooter. He was 80 of 105 (.762) as a freshman.
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