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Utes baffling the 'experts' again

SALT LAKE CITY — Larry Krystkowiak was at his effusive best, Thursday night, even going Jack London in the postgame interviews regarding his team's effort.

“The strength of each wolf is in the pack,” he said.

In that case, it’s time for the rest of the conference to make for the cabin.

In keeping with a prominent Pac-12 observer’s guess that Utah will win the conference tournament, the Utes held off UCLA, 84-78, at the Huntsman Center. The Ute coach has been saying for weeks there was much basketball remaining. Not anymore. But in between, his team pulled out of a four-game spiral and has now won 8 of its last 10. With two games left, the Utes are, at worst, a threat to anyone they face in the postseason. At best, they’re headed for a No. 2 seed in the conference tourney — far above projections.

But that’s how Krystkowiak’s teams always respond. They act like they have a secret no one else knows. A pair of wins for the 18-9 Utes could help secure an NCAA Tournament berth. While 20 wins used to be the magic number, that’s not the case anymore. But seven actually would be magic — the number of consecutive victories if they win out against USC and Colorado.

After Thursday’s game, Krystkowiak made for the stands where former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan — wearing a red shirt — and ex-Jazz center Mark Eaton awaited. Seems everyone is tracking what the Utes are doing.

Last time they played UCLA, they were stuck in the aforementioned slump. Now San Jose Mercury News writer Jon Wilner has the Utes winning the Pac-12 conference tournament and the ensuing automatic NCAA berth. With USC’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder Bennie Boatwright out for the year, and Arizona star Allonzo Trier suspended, the Utah karma is strong.

“I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out,” Krystkowiak said.

The Utes' current five-game win streak has them in position for a top-four finish in the regular season, which would mean a first-round bye in the conference tournament. That’s good news for a team picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll.

In the Krystkowiak era, the Utes are always better than expected. Preceding Utah’s first year in the Pac-12, they were voted last in the preseason poll, but finished 11th. The next year they were also picked 12th, but finished 10th. In 2014, an expected ninth-place team finished eighth.

The only year Utah hasn’t outstripped expectations was in 2015 when it tied for second after being picked second. In 2016, the Utes finished second after a third-place prognostication. Tabbed for an eighth-place finish, last year, they landed in fourth.

Shouldn’t Krystkowiak be saying, “I told you so?”

“Well, you’re the experts,” he told reporters. “I don’t know if it’s ‘atta boy’ for me or you guys just keep making mistakes.”

How good the Utes should be on a regular basis is complicated. With UCLA, Arizona, USC and Oregon to recruit against, fourth place on most years isn’t a bad showing. At the same time, Utah is no Big Dance wannabe. The Utes have been to the NCAA Tournament 29 times, including two of the last three years. They’ve reached the Sweet 16 10 times, most recently in 2015.

Given the Pac-12’s penchant for beating itself — only one team has fewer than five conference losses — and the league’s modest national status, it seems questionable whether a fourth-place team could make the NCAA tourney. Only two Pac-12 teams made the field in 2012, but in 2016, seven made the cut. No. 14 Arizona is the only team in this week’s top 25.

Krystkowiak maintains Utah has played itself into position to determine its postseason destiny. With an 18-9 record, only a showy finish would catch the selection committee’s eye. But showy is just what the Utes have been doing.

In keeping with Krystkowiak’s “Call of the Wild” theme, the Utes made 15 of 17 free throws, hit seven first-half 3-pointers, and finished with four players in double figures against UCLA.

So the Utes do what they can. It’s unrealistic to think they will regularly out-recruit the best teams in the conference. Which is why Krystkowiak can smile about flummoxing the pollsters. Again the Utes have caught the experts unawares. But they shouldn’t. Looking better in person than on paper is what they do.