LAS VEGAS — After reaching the Pac-12 tournament semifinals in 2012-13, Utah felt better about its chances of competing within the conference in 2013-14 for a variety of reasons. While the improved maturity of players such as Dallin Bachynski, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor was certainly a factor, the addition of junior college transfer Delon Wright was another.
Lauded for his versatility, the 6-foot-6 Wright more than lived up to the expectations in his debut season as he posted averages of 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Wright’s play was one reason why the Utes improved their win total by six games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT the program made its first postseason appearance since 2009.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s program is in a good spot these days, and with the returnees being joined by a solid recruiting class there’s been an increase in both fan excitement and expectations as the Utes prepare for the 2014-15 season. And the goals for Wright and his teammates are clear-cut: to not only reach the NCAA tournament but to also contend in a conference that has multiple teams looking to threaten early favorite Arizona.
“Everyone’s coming back,” Wright told NBCSports.com at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “We played Arizona three times last year and two of the games were close, so we feel like we can compete with them.”
One of the keys for Utah this season will be Wright’s progression, because even with the vast array of skills he displayed there was a glaring weakness on the offensive end. That weakness: perimeter shooting. Wright finished the 2013-14 season shooting 56.1% from the field, but he made just 22.2% of his shots from beyond the arc. Given teams’ ability to sag off of Wright and dare him to shoot the perimeter shot, the overall field goal percentage displays his ability to not settle for what’s being given to him.
With his ability to remain under control, Wright can get to just about any spot on the floor and that was the case in Las Vegas at the LeBron camp. But for Wright to take the next step individually, thus helping Utah in the process, he knows that the work he puts in to improve his perimeter shot will be key.
“That’s the main thing I need to work on,” Wright noted. “I’ve been shooting a lot of shots in the gym, and I’m trying to work on my form, release and confidence [in taking those shots]. A lot of teams packed the lane against me because they knew I like to drive to the basket.
“They gave me the outside shot and I wasn’t comfortable with it. So I feel that if I can knock those shots down, it will open up my game and open up the game for the entire team.”
As a team Utah finished second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage, making nearly 49 percent of their shots from the field one season after ranking seventh in that particular category (43.9%). The Utes were also a more efficient offensive team, and given the fact that their top six scorers from last season all return to Salt Lake City there should be optimism surrounding the program. However in order to truly factor into the Pac-12 race, Utah will need to perform better down the stretch in tight games.
Last season in games decided by six points or less the Utes amassed a record of three wins and eight losses, which includes a four-point home loss to Arizona and tight road defeats at the hands of Arizona State (79-75), Colorado (79-75) and Stanford (61-60). So while much was made of the Utes’ non-conference strength of schedule (and rightfully so) when their name wasn’t called on Selection Sunday, those close defeats were just as much of a culprit.
The hope for Wright and his teammates is that with an added year of experience they can change that fortune, and better yet the Utes will be expected to do so. And that represents a step forward for the program, which until that run in the 2013 Pac-12 tournament took more than its fair share of beatings. With this being the case, Utah has the opportunity to move closer to being the program that is currently ranked 15th on the NCAA’s all-time wins list (1,685 wins; .643 win percentage).
“Walking around campus, people aren’t asking us if we’re going to be good,” said Wright. “They’re asking if we’re going to make it to the tournament.”
Making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 is a realistic expectation for Utah, but it should also be noted that Wright and his teammates aren’t limiting themselves to simply making the field of 68. And with there being a number of hopeful contenders in the Pac-12 with major questions to answer this offseason, that’s a good approach to take.