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March can't come soon enough for Utes in light of nationwide shadow on college basketball

SALT LAKE CITY — As if there weren’t enough on his mind, Larry Krystkowiak’s team suffered a lopsided defeat, Saturday at home. The building emptied like a faucet.

Suspense wasn’t in the cards for the Utes in their 74-58 loss to USC.

Intrigue remains regarding what Utah can do in the conference tournament. For a couple of weeks, it was the league’s most captivating team. But the streak ended at five games.

Back to the design room.

“I’m just wiping the blood from my face after that whipping,” Krystkowiak said.

If the immediate future is hazy for the Utes, it’s positively murky for college basketball in general. There have been worse weeks in the sport, but you might have to go way back. For instance, the 1951 point-shaving scandal. During that season, players from several colleges admitted to accepting bribes and doctoring games.

This week has been no less unsavory. Louisville was stripped of two Final Four appearances — including one national title — due to involvement in a recruiting sex scandal. Later in the week, numerous players, including former Ute Kyle Kuzma, were tied to alleged loan payments from a sports agency. Hours later it was revealed that Arizona coach Sean Miller had been recorded via an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to a recruit. That moved Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen to call for Miller’s removal and predict “nuclear winter” for the blueblood program.

Scandal has long been a part of college basketball, whether it’s UNLV consorting with gamblers, a murder case at Baylor, grade tampering at Minnesota, or Rick Pitino’s endless problems at Louisville.

It’s enough to make people altogether bail.

Nevertheless, the game has shone through, mostly in March, when small fries and titans alike get their shot. Little teams never win the NCAA Tournament, but the mystique lives. The biggest upset was the No. 8-seeded Villanova Wildcats, who won the championship with a cocaine-addicted star.

Athletic officials nationwide are concerned about the decline in attendance. In many cases, arenas don’t come close to filling the seats. Only three teams in the Pac-12, including Utah, are averaging five-figure crowds. Small wonder. The best players leave college early for the pros. Meanwhile, scandals chip away at the game’s image.

“If anyone had told you over the course of the last six months … that it’s not kind of embarrassing to be part of it is simply lying,” Krystkowiak said.

The biggest offense, he added, was seeing the Ute drum and feather logo on ESPN, indirectly tied to the agent-player scandal, even though the school isn’t being investigated. It didn’t help the mood that the Utes fell behind USC by 17 with 3:20 left in the first half.

Two minutes into the second half, a 10-point deficit was 15. At the 7:24 mark, Krystkowiak drew a technical after a no-call. He said that in the heat of the moment, the team’s film coach “was sticking his clipboard in my face, and I wasn’t done melting down, and I karate chopped it. There you go.”

There went the Utes, too.

If Kuzma’s connection had any effect on his former teammates, it shouldn’t have. USC had two players named as potential recipients of impermissible loans in the Yahoo! Sports story. One of them, Bennie Boatwright, was out Saturday with an injury. But the turmoil had little effect on forward Chimezie Metu, who logged 14 points and nine rebounds.

It was a down day all around for the Utes.

Krystkowiak’s and everyone else’s dilemma is that attendance and interest isn’t what it once was. Regaining and retaining fans amid scandal — even if it’s not your own — is a worry. A relatively large media contingent showed up to ask Krystkowiak about the issue.

“This is kind of what I was expecting,” he said. “There were about four people at the press conference on Tuesday when we were getting ready to take on USC and UCLA. All of a sudden something negative comes up and that’s what everybody wants to talk about. And yes, it (ticks) me off.”

Whether the Utes make the NCAA Tournament remains iffy. Whether other teams are banned from the tourney is unclear. Regardless, for all involved, March Madness and its exuberance, can’t come too soon.