SALT LAKE CITY — You may have noticed the other night that the Utah men’s basketball team defeated Willamette University by 57 points, the Utes’ second-largest margin of victory in the last half century.
Considering the Utes' abysmal 6-25 record last year, the margin might have been surprising. On the other hand, Willamette is a Division III school that went 5-20 last year and is picked to finish dead last in its conference this year. The Utes might have gotten a better game from Lone Peak High.
Following the worst season in Utah history, the Utes are playing arguably their worst non-conference schedule in history this year — at least since World War II when the Utes had to fill their schedule with the likes of the Hill Field Fliers, Ecker Studio and the Wendover Bombers.
And it’s not like the Utes had a difficult time finding opponents.
“We didn’t have a hard time getting anybody to play us — they all wanted to play us,’’ said coach Larry Krystkowiak, referring to the Utes’ sorry record last year.
Rather, the Utes have chosen to play the least-demanding schedule possible in an effort to instill confidence in their young team and, of course, to get some victories.
Of their 11 preseason opponents, just one — BYU — had a winning record last year. Several were picked last in their respective conferences in preseason polls this year and none — except BYU — were picked to finish in the top half of their leagues.
On Friday, the Utes play Sacramento State, picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky, and next week they get Idaho State, picked for ninth in the Big Sky, and Central Michigan and Wright State, each picked for last in their leagues.
A recent story on ESPN.com broke down the various schedules of Pac-12 schools and the Utes’ non-conference schedule was ranked last in the league and among the 10 worst in the nation among major colleges. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the best, Utah’s was ranked a 1, a schedule the writer called “atrocious.”
However, any suggestion that the Utes have a lousy preseason schedule doesn’t faze second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak in the least. After all, he’s coming off that 6-25 season with almost an entirely new group of players. Accordingly, he wasn’t about to load up this year’s schedule with tough opponents.
“We’re doing what we think is good for our team,’’ he says. “I know from the outside, everybody says it’s an easy schedule, but there are no easy games for the University of Utah.’’
Krystkowiak says, “We’re not going to be a favorite in a lot of our games and we’re going to have to scratch and claw and put it all together. I’m not going to buy into this whole ‘it’s such an easy preseason schedule, you guys should be 10-2.’ It’s a bunch of bunk.’’
Last year, Krystkowiak inherited a schedule mostly put together by Jim Boylen’s staff, which only included six preseason home games and a tough tournament in the Bahamas, along with road games at Boise State, Fresno State and Weber State. Along with Washington State, the Utes had the most road games of any school in the Pac-12 Conference.
Krystkowiak says he’s not necessarily trying to pad his record with wins or trying to get on a winning streak going into conference play.
“I’d like to not have our psyche broken mentally, like we were a year ago with the games we played,’’ said Krystkowiak. “It was like going into a gunfight with a knife.’’
So he and director of basketball operations Norm Parrish devised a schedule they thought was best suited for their young, inexperienced team.
“We’re not in a position where we need to try to dazzle anybody with RPI with big headliners in our preseason, because we’ve got 18 of them built into our league,’’ Krystkowiak said. “Seventeen of our games are against top 100 teams. Seven are against top 50. So when you start looking at our league and the challenge of our league, it kind of rearranges what you’re going to do in the preseason.’’
One disappointing thing for a lot of fans is the lack of games against in-state schools. Most would rather see an in-state school with local talent than a team they’ve never heard of from the Midwest.
The Utes have been playing Utah State for 100 years, Weber State for the past 35 and played Southern Utah every year for a decade until 2006. But none of those teams are on the schedule this year, nor are any other Utah schools such as Utah Valley, Westminster or Dixie State.
Krystkowiak said the contracts with USU and Weber State were finished and flat-out says, “I didn’t want to play them.’’
It comes back to not scheduling games you don’t have a great chance of winning and the Ute coach says his program is at that place right now.
“When you do a home-and-home with somebody you’d want to have a better chance to win on the road than going to Logan,’’ he said. “Anybody in their right mind is going to want to do that.’’
With a Pac-12 schedule that includes the likes of national powers UCLA and Arizona every year along with a bunch of other strong programs such as Cal, Stanford and Washington, the Utes may never have a great preseason schedule again. The teams coming in January and February are all name teams that used to be the highlight of any November and December schedule.
But Ute fans can be assured that this year’s non-conference slate will likely be the worst they’ll ever see.
“We’re in the building phases of our program,’’ says Krystkowiak. “There’s some times right around the corner when we’re going to be playing some bigger-name schools.’’