SALT LAKE CITY — Move over Hallmark.
The Utes are co-opting your slogan.
They care enough to send their very best.
After a relatively wishy-washy season, and an iffy first game in the NIT, their postseason is assured of at least modest success. They can’t finish worse than 2-1, having dispatched Louisiana State 95-71 on Monday.
Thanks to ridiculously good shooting, their chance to make the baby Final Four has arrived. They’re in the quarterfinals. It probably shouldn’t be called the Elite Eight because no team that misses the NCAA Tournament is elite. Still, the Utes believe it’s worth hanging around. Small crowds, minimal media coverage and modest rewards are no deterrent to such teams.
“We seemed to be ready,” coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
A week after tipping a chair over while being ejected, Krystkowiak has his team rolling. This time he didn’t even shed his jacket or loosen his tie — a rarity. Neither did the Utes. They could have played in their warm-ups. They led 30-9 in the first quarter and 45-18 in the second.
The lead shrunk to 15 in the early second half.
The test for the Utes from here is that every other team is also thinking, “We’ve gotten this far — why not finish?”
That’s the way to watch the NIT: see who wants to be there.
It has been a strange season for the Utes. Krystkowiak bemoaned the selection committee’s lack of respect for the Pac-12, which promptly went 0-3 in NCAA play — the only big conference to blank out.
What do you think of the NIT, now that @UtahMBB is in the quarterfinals?— Deseret News Sports (@desnewssports) March 20, 2018
On a personal level, things have been weird, too. He publicly complained about key players being hamstrung by arbitrary foul calls, and criticized foul-out rules in general. Last week after his ejection against UC Davis, he intimated it fired up his team.
I kind of challenged our guys … a lot of positive things happened,” Krystkowiak said Monday.
The NIT’s “suspense” might be a bit contrived, but three wins and you’re in the junior Final Four.
“You realize there’s not that many teams playing,” Krystkowiak said.
When teams start winning, even in the NIT, they get a touch of madness in their systems.
If you can’t be the best of the best, be the best of the rest.
Modest as that seems, no one expected the Utes to make the NCAA tourney this year, yet they cobbled together a team that won five straight down the stretch and eight of its last 10.
Teams have been known to mail it in after being left out of Selection Sunday.
Easy as it is to point out NIT teams are playing for 69th-best in the country — behind the 68 NCAA qualifiers — it’s hard not to steal a look at any team that catches fire. Nobody really remembers the NIT champ (quick, name last year’s), but winning it can trigger better times.
TCU, last year’s NIT champ, made this year’s NCAA field. Baylor (2013) and Wichita State (2011) went on to make the NCAA tourney a year after winning the NIT.
Utah’s chances of advancing were boosted by an LSU lineup that was missing key players who were out for reasons ranging from injury, to suspension, to transfer plans, to “leave of absence.” One player suited up with a mask to protect a broken nose.
It must have smarted even worse after Utah made seven of its first eight shots.
By game’s end, the crowd of 5,528 was actually staying for the pleasure, even though the subs were in — all of them. It was a 30-point blowout, but fans wanted to make it last. They clapped in rhythm with the music during timeouts and cheered for the candid shots on the video screen.
The checkered regular season was fast fading.
“I think you can kind of regather your pride a little bit,” Krystkowiak said.
NCAA or NIT? The Utes are playing like they don’t know the difference.