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Brad Rock: Even minor violations not a good look for Utah basketball program

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks with his players during a timeout as Utah and Colorado play in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. Utah won 78-69.
Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak talks with his players during a timeout as Utah and Colorado play in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. Utah won 78-69.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The NCAA’s sanctions on University of Utah men’s basketball were only a slap on the wrist. They involved minor infractions and modest penalties. Nobody was fired, no games were vacated, no postseason bans imposed.

So why did it feel like a biff on the back of the head?

As they say in the crime family and action dramas, “Looks like we got ourselves a situation.”

In a Tuesday news release, the school announced self-reported violations that occurred in April 2018 when the U. recruited a player during the NCAA’s “quiet period.” The university self-imposed a two-year probationary period, a $5,000 fine from the basketball budget, a one-week suspension for assistant coach Tommy Connor, and limitations on off-campus recruiting and official visits.

The U. also banned on-campus interactions with Salt Lake Community College coaches and from recruiting Bruins players for a year.

The NCAA imposed further sanctions, including an off-campus recruiting pause for Connor in July 2019, and a single-year ban on contact with an SLCC coach. Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak was originally suspended for two games, but won an appeal to the NCAA.

Minor run-ins with college basketball’s governing body are inevitable. These infractions were brought on by an apparent “misinterpretation” of the official visiting times. Utah’s coaches visited a prospect at a high school during a time when in-person, off-campus recruiting was impermissible. Connor apparently coordinated to get a player who was visiting SLCC to also check out Utah.

That rendered the Utah visit official, causing the Utes to exceed the allowable number.

Largely the violations resulted in a loss of recruiting days. Connor will be required to attend a rules seminar.

If this sounds like a lot of technical nitpicking, it should. Nobody ever accused the NCAA of streamlining. Universities have learned to soften the governing body’s actions by first imposing their own sanctions.

The NCAA rulebook is a pharisaical maze of minutiae. At some point, everyone falls victim to details. It might be for something as big as purchasing cars, but can be as small as someone buying a player a cheeseburger. Former Weber State coach Ron Abegglen was once sanctioned by the NCAA for loaning his pickup truck to a player for an apartment move.

Minor as the Ute sanctions are, the optics aren’t good for the team or Krystkowiak. Utah has missed the NCAA Tournament three years running for the first time since a drought from 2009-14. In fairness, the program has met or exceeded preseason poll results practically every year Krystkowiak has been in the Pac-12.

But other issues too have shaded the program. Krystkowiak became a lightning rod for local college basketball fans when he canceled a game with BYU after the Cougars’ Nick Emery punched Utah’s Brandon Taylor late in a game. Purists were incensed that Krystkowiak would dismiss the century-old rivalry. Emery later got BYU sanctioned for having accepted cash, trips and use of a car from a booster. That resulted in BYU vacating 47 games.

Recently Krystkowiak has been plagued by transfers. Thanks to the new transfer portal, players are leaving many programs at breakneck pace. Utah lost Donnie Tillman in July after the forward transferred to UNLV. Six players have left the team since last November, including Tillman, Nakeem Gaskin, Vante Hendrix, Jayce Johnson, Charles Jones Jr. and Christian Popoola.

Despite those losses, Utah is expected to return talented sophomores Riley Battin, Timmy Allen and Both Gach.

In the U. news release, Krystkowiak said he accepted responsibility for his situation, calling the NCAA violations “inadvertent and unintentional mistakes on our part.” He went on to say there was “never an intent to circumvent any rules.”

Given the nature of the violations, that’s believable.

What’s harder to believe is that Utah doesn’t have an image problem that has only been accentuated this week.