SALT LAKE CITY — Things quickly brightened for the Utah Utes.
A couple of hours after returning home from Las Vegas, where they dropped an 88-57 decision to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, the Utes received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament — where they'll take on Fresno State in the first round Thursday (5:27 p.m., TruTV).
“It’s good. It’s good for our program. It’s good for us to kind of look past our last game and kind of move on to something more bright,” said senior forward Jordan Loveridge. “We know it’s going to be a tough opponent, as every team in the tournament is, so we’ll just prepare and get ready for that game.”
As for the lopsided loss to Oregon, Loveridge noted that it’s over.
“We can’t do anything about it besides look at the film and try to get better from it,” he said. “Hopefully we can take some things into this next game.”
Fresno State (25-9) could provide quite a challenge. The Bulldogs have won nine consecutive games, including a 68-63 victory over San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament finals — securing their first NCAA tourney appearance since 2001.
Utah (26-8), meanwhile, is returning for the second straight year. The Utes reached the Sweet 16 last season.
“It’s just a great feeling to be back in the tournament,” said sophomore forward Kyle Kuzma. “We’ve got a tall task in front of us with Fresno State.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s initial reaction to the matchup was that the Utes will be “playing a really good team.” Krystkowiak expressed that he has a lot of respect for head coach Rodney Terry and his staff.
Sizing up the competition is part of the process. So much so, that Krystkowiak didn’t dwell on seeding when the pairing was announced.
“I didn’t think twice about the number,” he explained. “It was all about who are we playing so we can get started with the prep, where are we playing, and when — then start kind of charting the course.”
Just getting there is a big deal.
“We’re happy to be a part of it and just kind of ready to jump in and start working,” said Krystkowiak, who pointed out that prior preparation includes playing three physical NCAA tournament teams (USC, California and Oregon) in the Pac-12 tournament.
There are other variables as well, such as participating for the first time.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid,” said junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam, who called it an amazing feeling and something he wanted to experience.
For those on the team last year, getting back is quite meaningful.
“To be here for a second time and have an opportunity like this again is such a tremendous feeling and a great opportunity to capitalize on,” guard Brandon Taylor said.
While noting his excitement, the senior added that this is what March Madness is all about.
“We wanted to have another chance to compete in this,” Loveridge said. “Hopefully we can make an run.”
Topping last season’s trip to the Sweet 16 won’t be easy. The winner of the Utah-Fresno State game will meet either Gonzaga or Seton Hall in the second round Saturday. The bracket filters in the Midwest Regional and a possible Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2 Michigan State.
Sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, emphasized that March Madness is not only a crazy time but the most exciting part of the season as well.
“I really hope we’re going to make a run and stay in it for a while,” he said.
Loveridge, one of three seniors on the active roster, has seen bad times and good in his career at Utah. Making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, he continued, is amazing.
“Everyone’s watching. It’s just fun all around,” Loveridge said. “It’s just a great experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You can’t really explain it.”
The Utes are one of seven Pac-12 teams invited to the tournament. Oregon netted a No. 1 seed, while California, Arizona and Oregon State wound up with No. 4, No. 6 and No. 7 seeds, respectively. Colorado and USC were tabbed as No. 8 participants.
“I’m proud of the league,”Krystkowiak said. “It’s fun to be a part of.”
Utah (26-8) vs. Fresno State (25-9)
Pepsi Center, Denver
Thursday, 5:27 p.m. (MT)