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Utes stop shy of making it a celebration

SALT LAKE CITY — Nobody was on national TV going berserk and screaming “We’re goin’ dancing!” The Utes knew that weeks ago. In fact, the mood at the Jon and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on Sunday was just as one might expect: balanced enthusiasm.

But it was clear the funk had lifted. Larry Krystkowiak joked with his team about making too much noise on the practice court as he conducted his press conference. He mimicked a TV voice by calling out, “That’s Brandon Taylor! Here at the practice facility!”

The long, dark night of their souls had gone to sleep in Las Vegas.

It’s not as though Sunday should have been different for the Utes. They were coming off a 31-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Yet having finished second in the regular season and conference tournament, a No. 3 seeding in this year’s NCAA tournament was no big shocker.

The Pac-12 got major respect in this year’s field, placing seven teams.

The Utes can take Saturday as a learning experience — or a season wrecker, depending on what happens this week. Their opponent is No. 14-seeded Fresno State. Though Krystkowiak would never say it, a win shouldn’t be a huge worry. Utah has no logical reason to lose to the second-place team from a one-bid conference. At the same time, against Oregon, Utah looked like it actually belonged in the Mountain West.

“It was one of those losses where you’re, like … man!” said Taylor.

If you ask Krystkowiak, the Oregon loss wasn’t the worst news of his life. For starters, the Utes had been on a nine-game win streak. They hadn’t lost since the last time they faced Oregon.

“I would never wish our team to lose a game, but upon further reflection, it’s pretty eye-opening … we can’t turn ball over, can’t get pounded on the glass, can’t come out with a deer-in-headlights look and have any success,” Krystkowiak said Sunday. “That’s what I can control, not where I am emotionally, or how I feel about the team. That’s not on my mind.”

One thing he shouldn’t have to worry about is overconfidence. Utah is a team with the capacity to lay a duck-sized egg. It did so this year against Miami in a 24-point loss at the season’s start; did so again in a preseason loss to Wichita State by 17. The Utes lost three times to Oregon this year, by an average of nearly 20 points. The good news is that to face the No.1-seeded Ducks in the national tournament, they’d have to meet in the championship game.

By Sunday the Utes had settled into rueful acceptance, realizing they hadn’t been as much overconfident as incompetent. Twenty turnovers can reveal that. Their path should get smoother for at least a game. After a season of Pac-12 basketball, Fresno can’t present much the Utes haven’t seen. Besides, the last three times Utah lost in its conference championship game it went to the Sweet 16 (2005, 1996 and 1991).

Last year Utah lost in the conference semifinals to Oregon, but made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual champion Duke. Which brings up a point. Losing in your conference tourney isn’t the worst thing. Duke stumbled in its conference finale against Notre Dame last year, only to roll through the NCAA tournament like Trump through New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, whether last year’s run by Utah has anything to do with this year is debatable.

“I don’t buy it … I don’t think there’s any magic with having been to the NCAA tournament and expect it to be any easier,” Krystkowiak said.

He has a point. Momentum is a $5 million question — the approximate amount a team gets for making it to the third round.

“To be quite honest, it’s tough to come off a loss like (Oregon) and say you have all this momentum,” Taylor cautioned.

It was more than enough to keep Sunday’s event from becoming a wholesale celebration.

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