LAS VEGAS — They’re here.
After wrapping up a morning practice at a gym just off the famed Las Vegas Strip, the 12th-ranked Utah Utes were eager to take their game a few blocks down the road for Thursday’s Pac-12 quarterfinal contest against USC (7:15 p.m., Pac-12 Network) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“We’re here. Ready to go,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who added that the Utes have focused on rebounding and transition in gearing up for the tournament.
Krystkowiak emphasized the need to be prepared and make sure everyone is “pretty darn fresh” should the Utes end up playing three consecutive nights in the tournament.
Utah (24-7, 13-5) enters the tournament on a seven-game winning streak. The Utes are the No. 2 seed, their highest placement since joining the conference.
Even so, Krystkowiak acknowledged that they “dodged a bullet” in the season finale, a 57-55 victory at home over Colorado.
“We should come in here as though we lost because we did a lot of things poorly. So I think it was a good little wake-up call,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we were able to learn a lesson without learning the lesson of the loss.
“So I really don’t feel like and I don’t think our guys feel like we’ve won seven in a row based on what we went through Saturday night,” Krystkowiak continued. “And we’ve addressed some things.”
The coach added that he really likes the team and praised their maturity.
“I think we’ve remained humble and hungry and our guys are pretty dialed in,” Krystkowiak said.
Utah arrived here Tuesday not knowing who its first opponent in the tournament would be. The answer came Wednesday when seventh-seeded USC defeated No. 10 UCLA, 95-71. The Utes defeated both teams last month in Los Angeles. This time, though, the environment is expected to be different. It’s the postseason, after all.
“It’s crazy because the (regular) season flew by just like that,” said senior guard Brandon Taylor, who noted that participating in his fourth Pac-12 tournament is an amazing feeling. “We have a great opportunity to do some big things.”
The current priority, obviously, is a Pac-12 tournament championship.
“That’s what we played for all season long,” said sophomore center Jakob Poeltl. “We’re here in Vegas, now it’s on. Like it’s a do-or-die situation. We’ve got to bring it every game. Otherwise you’re out.”
The Utes can’t wait to get things started. Poeltl made it clear they’re looking forward to it, especially after the subpar showing against Colorado. He said the players are determined to prove themselves again.
Taylor agreed that there’s a sense of urgency as well, expressing the need to just go out there and put it all on the line by any means necessary.
“It may be ugly — just as long as we come out and we go and just give 110 percent,” Taylor said. “If someone beats us, someone beats us. But as long as we don’t beat ourselves in this tournament we’ll be in great shape.”
Utah topped USC 80-69 on Feb. 21 in the only meeting between the teams this season. Poeltl, who has since been named Pac-12 Player of the Year, dominated the game with 29 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, four steals and one block. Taylor also had a strong outing with 10 assists.
“Utah is an excellent basketball team. They have the player of the year,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “He presents difficulty for us because he can score the ball in the low post. He’s an excellent passer, a very smart player.”
Enfield also had kind things to say about the Utes in general.
“We have a lot of respect for Utah,” he added. “They play a very tough style. They’re tough and they’re very skilled and we have to bring our ‘A’ game and compete tomorrow.”
EXTRA STUFF: Utah is 4-4 all-time in Pac-12 tournament play. … The Utes reached the semifinals in 2013 and 2015. … USC forward Bennie Boatwright finished with a game-high 19 points in the opening-round win over UCLA.