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Dancing again: Utes back in the NCAA tournament

DENVER — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak said he isn’t buying it. He doesn’t subscribe to any theory that last year’s run to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 will help this time around. The Utes, who are making back-to-back tourney appearances for the first time since a 2002-05 run, face Fresno State in the first round Thursday (5:27 p.m., truTV) at the Pepsi Center.

“I love our guys, I love the way they’ve prepped all year, and the way they’ve approached games, and the way they practice, and do all those things,” Krystkowiak said. “But I don’t think there’s any magic with having been to the NCAA tournament and expecting it to be any easier.

“You know, it’s a grind and it’s a challenge. We can throw all the rankings, the numbers, the streaks and the scrapbook out the window this time of year,” he continued.

Krystkowiak added that “we’ve got to get guys to play.”

The Utes answered the bell in 2015. They opened the NCAA tournament with victories over Stephen F. Austin (57-50) and Georgetown (75-64) before falling to eventual national champion Duke (63-57).

This year, Utah is two seeds higher — a No. 3. The path to the Sweet 16 and a possible meeting with No. 2 Michigan State begins with Fresno State. Should that work out well, a Saturday game with Gonzaga or Seton Hall awaits.

“I’m going to be real hesitant to be talking about any advantages,” Krystkowiak said when asked about things like playing fairly close to home at elevation in Denver.

Sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, however, noted that the team did learn something from last year’s tournament run.

"We know that no matter who you play, no matter how the game goes, you have to be 100 percent dialed in at every single second — it doesn't matter if you're up 20 or down 20,” he said. “If you lose, it's going to be the last game of your season. So there's really nothing to save up for."

Despite the pressure, the Utes are looking forward to going dancing again.

“This is exciting,” said senior guard Brandon Taylor. “This is what March Madness is all about.”

For Utah, the craziness comes after its most lopsided loss of the season — an 88-57 setback to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament finals.

“I would never wish for our team to lose a game. But upon further reflection, after what happened to us (Saturday) night, I don’t know if it’s a bad thing,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s pretty eye-opening. It exposed us in a couple of areas. If we’re going to have success from this point forward, we can’t turn the ball over (and) we can’t get pounded on the glass.”

And there’s more.

“We can’t come out with a deer-in-the-headlights look in our eyes and expect to have any success,” Krystkowiak explained. “So that’s what I’m focused on, what I can control right now.”

In that regard, things have gone well — especially in Pac-12 play.

The Utes (26-8, 13-5) earned their highest placement in the conference tournament and reached the championship game for the first time. They finished the regular season in sole possession of second place. Poeltl was named the conference’s player of the year and Taylor earned scholar-athlete recognition.

“This league is really challenging and our guys stepped up and made some plays,” Krystkowiak said.

The Pac-12 sent a record seven teams — Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, USC and Utah — to the NCAA tournament.


Twitter: @DirkFacer