Both Gach entering the NCAA Transfer Portal for the second time last month did not come as a surprise.
The former University of Utah standout guard left the Utes after two seasons, returning to his home state last season to play for the University of Minnesota, but mid-March brought program upheaval. Richard Pitino was fired after eight seasons, the school made a semi-quizzical hire in 40-year-old, first-year head coach Ben Johnson, and, as is commonplace nowadays when a new coaching staff comes in, there was a parade of Golden Gophers to the portal.
Initially upon Johnson’s arrival, Gach, an Austin, Minn. native, appeared primed to play for Johnson, but that feeling eventually waned, so Gach followed nine teammates out the door.
Gach going to the portal may not have been a surprise, but what did come as a shock was him firing off a tweet on June 3 indicating he had once again committed to Utah. The end of his first go-around in Salt Lake City could be described as acrimonious.
With support from then-head coach Larry Krystkowiak, Gach declared for the 2020 NBA draft with an understanding he would go through the process, gain feedback from NBA personnel, and return to school. Five weeks later, Krystkowiak took a phone call from Gach, who delivered the news that he intended to transfer if he removed his name from the draft pool, which he eventually did. In speaking with The Salt Lake Tribune at the time, Krystkowiak painted himself as being caught off guard and surprised by the decision.
Thirteen months after Gach left Utah, Krystkowiak is no longer in charge, having been fired on March 16 after 10 seasons, replaced by Craig Smith. Along with Smith comes a figure from Gach’s past, one who helped facilitate a return to where his college career began in 2018.
Former Utes associate head coach Tommy Connor did the heavy lifting on Gach’s recruitment, but once he got to Utah, multiple sources have told The Tribune in recent days that his strongest connection on the coaching staff was with assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum. Slocum left for UNLV after Gach’s freshman season, but is back now as an assistant under Smith.
As recently as the beginning of this month, Utah had scholarships to play with and needed more backcourt help. Gach, with 86 games at the Power Five level on his resume, including 57 at Utah, was on the open market. The assistant coach Gach was the closest with the last time he played for Utah is back. On the surface, all of those pieces appear to fit, but it wasn’t going to be that easy.
The Utes, according to one source, did not reach out immediately to Gach with serious intent, not knowing if they could take him on due to the presence of Rylan Jones. The sophomore point guard hit the transfer portal on May 7, then committed to Utah State and new head coach Ryan Odom just three days later.
“That was partially the reason why he left in the first place,” one source told The Tribune. “That dynamic was no longer there, so it became more appealing to reach out to him and see if he had interest.”
The same source indicated Gach struggled with “the dynamic of fathers and sons,” which references the fact that Jones’ father, Chris, was on Krystkowiak’s staff as director of basketball operations from 2016, three years before Rylan arrived at Utah, until Krystkowiak’s firing in March.
In fairness, despite whatever locker room dynamics may have been in play, Gach’s scoring, minutes, field goals made and field goals attempted all rose as a sophomore in 2019-20 when Jones arrived as a freshman. That said, he was also inconsistent too much of the time that season and had the ball in his lands less with the addition of Jones.
His sophomore year was quite enigmatic, complete with a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but also a three-game tour de force to close the regular season in which he handled primary point guard duties with Jones dealing with a concussion.
Citing the need for “newcomers” to be on campus and properly briefed on athletic department protocols, Utah has not yet made Gach available to the media.
With any proverbial obstacles cleared, Utah, which, by many accounts, has been exceptionally deliberate in doing its due diligence on potential portal recruits, began taking a longer look at Gach. Slocum, per sources, was at the wheel of the recruitment this time around, and because he already knew Gach and had maintained a relationship, he had already done his due diligence and knew what he was getting.
Smith certainly didn’t need much convincing on Gach, having recruited him at South Dakota, and again at Utah State last offseason during his first trip through the transfer portal.
“For Both, it’s about trust, it’s about relationships, and he had a hell of a time there with friends. Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune, he’s close with those guys,” one source told The Tribune. “Those guys did an extremely good job of letting Both know how much they would really love him back as well.”
Where Smith puts Gach on the floor this winter is now a topic of discussion. He can and will play point guard, but there isn’t a desire, or even a need to put him there exclusively. Gach’s greatest offensive attribute is as a slasher on the wing. When he gets a step on his defender and starts going downhill toward the rim, he is tough to stop.
His size and length athleticism allow him to defend all three guard spots, and for a roster that is shaping up as a defensive-minded, that factor cannot be overstated, especially with Gach’s level of experience.
Gach is coming off a season at Minnesota in which he averaged 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 29 games. He started the first 16 games of the season, but struggled in long stretches of Big Ten play, coming off the bench for the final 13 games of the Golden Gophers’ 14-15 season. Those struggles against high-major competition last season are part of the equation, but he is projected as a significant piece for this mixed-and-matched, portal-driven Utah team.
“That kid is a good player that can do a lot of different things when he’s healthy and engaged,” one Big Ten assistant who played against Gach last season told The Tribune. “Craig has done a nice job working the portal, finding what fits with how he wants to play. I think Utah got better with Gach going back there.”