Utah basketball is struggling.
The young Utes have lost six of their last eight and are 3-6 in Pac-12 play, the latest loss after being outplayed in the second half by Washington. Barring a miracle midseason turnaround or a Pac-12 tournament championship, Utah will miss the NCAA Tournament again under head coach Larry Krystkowiak.
The Utes haven’t made an appearance in the Big Dance since 2016.
After this season, Krystkowiak has two seasons left on his reportedly nearly $4 million per year contract, with an estimated buyout of nearly $10 million, according to USA Today’s database.
Rick Majerus sets the standard
During the Majerus era at Utah, missing the NCAA Tournament multiple years in a row just didn’t happen. Not a single time. From 1990 to 2004, Majerus set a standard of excellence on the hill, building on a successful foundation started by coaches like Jack Gardner and Jerry Pimm and turning Utah into one of the premier college basketball programs in the West.
Through Majerus’ 15 seasons as head coach, the Utes won 77% of their games, 10 regular-season conference championships (including seven in a row) and four conference tournaments, and made the NCAA Tournament 11 times — never going consecutive years without an NCAA tourney appearance. The Utes were consistently in the Associated Press Top 25, appearing in the AP poll in 11 of his 15 seasons.
Perhaps most importantly, Majerus produced results in the Big Dance. In just his second season, Utah won the WAC and went to the NCAA Tournament. The Utes went on to appear in four Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four in which they appeared in the national championship game in 1998.
That year, Utah blew out No. 1 seed Arizona in the Elite Eight, then followed that up with a win over No. 1 seed North Carolina in the national semifinals to reach the national championship. The Utes lost in the title game to Kentucky, but it was one of the most successful seasons in school history and one that hasn’t been matched since.
Beside what happened between the lines, attendance was high at the Huntsman Center, with crowds averaging over 13,500 for the majority of Majerus’ tenure. To this day, Majerus-era teams represent 10 of the 15 most-attended games in Utes history, per Utah’s media guide.
Additionally, Majerus had a hand in producing five NBA draft picks, including four first-rounders — Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac, Andre Miller and Andrew Bogut. By the time Majerus retired in 2004, this much was clear: Utah was a premier basketball school. The standard had been set at Utah, an expectation to make the NCAA Tournament the majority of the time.
Post-Majerus down years
Following the greatest coach in Utah basketball history couldn’t have been an easy task for Giacoletti, but he had one of the best years the program has seen in his first season.
In 2004-05, the Utes — led by Bogut, a Naismith Award winner and the first pick in the 2005 NBA draft — won 29 games, the third-best season in school history. Utah won the Mountain West Conference championship in the regular season and got to the Sweet 16 before losing to (who else?) Kentucky.
In the two seasons that followed, however, Giacoletti went 25-32. In his final season, 2006-07, average attendance at the Huntsman Center dipped below 10,000 for the first time since 1976. Giacoletti resigned after his third season.
Boylen took over the team in 2007, and things looked up for the first two seasons. Boylen led the Utes to an 18-15 record in his first campaign, then built on that with a 24-10 record in 2008-09, which included a MWC regular-season and tournament championship.
That team, led by Luke Nevill, Lawrence Borha and Shaun Green, got bounced in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament by No. 12 seed Arizona in what would be the final NCAA appearance for the Utes until 2015.
Boylen turned in a pair of losing seasons (14-17 and 13-18) before being let go in 2011, and he couldn’t have left the program in worse shape as it headed into the Pac-12.
Attendance at the Huntsman Center reflected the state of the program in Boylen’s last season, as it dipped to its lowest level in Huntsman Center history — an average of 8,422 per game.
As the football program soared, apathy about the basketball program was at an all-time high. Transfers plagued the program and Utah’s recruiting class was ranked in the mid-150s nationally, according to 247 Sports.
The Utes had gone from a once-proud program to one that couldn’t win consistently and couldn’t fill seats. They had gone to just two NCAA Tournaments in the seven years since Majerus retired and athletic director Chris Hill sought a new coach to lead them into the Pac-12.
The Krystkowiak era
Hill hired Krystkowiak in 2011, and Krystkowiak had to go to work immediately, replacing eight transfers from Boylen’s squad. Cobbling together a team, the Utes struggled to their worst record in the modern era, winning just six games.
But in each following season, the Utes improved. In 2012-13, Utah more than doubled its win total from the previous year, winning 15 games. Recruiting kept improving, too. In 2012, Utah signed the 50th-best class in the nation, per 247 Sports, then followed it up in 2013 by signing future first-round draft pick Delon Wright.
Utah had its first winning season since 2008-09 during the 2013-14 campaign, going 21-12. In the offseason, Utah signed Jakob Poeltl, Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman. The first two were future first-round picks, while Chapman was one of the top recruits in the country. Utah was on the cusp of being a tournament team.
With a starting lineup of Wright, Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge, Poeltl and Chris Reyes, everything that Krystkowiak had been building to during his time at Utah cumulated in 2014-15, when the Utes went 26-9. Utah beat Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, before narrowly losing to Duke.
Following that Sweet 16 run, Krystkowiak signed a contract extension through the 2022-23 season that made him one of the highest-paid coaches in college basketball. Utah also opened the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility, a $36 million investment that gave the Utes one of the nicest facilities in college hoops. Fans were back on board as well. The Utes eclipsed the 12,000 fans per game mark in 2014-15 for the first time since 2001 and averaged 13,000 fans the following year.
The next year, Kuzma filled in for Wright, and Poeltl, who averaged 17 points per game, was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Thanks in part to the addition of Lorenzo Bonam, and with Taylor and Loveridge filling out the starting lineup, Utah made a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016.
The Utes were blown out by Gonzaga in the second round, but Krystkowiak had returned Utah to its standard of making the NCAA Tournament. From fan support to facilities to recruiting, everything was set up for the Utes to succeed and continue making the NCAA tourney.
In Kuzma’s final year with the program, 2016-17, Utah again was a good team. The Utes went 20-12 and finished fourth in the Pac-12 but were bounced in their first game of the conference tournament before an NIT loss to Boise State ended the season on a sour note.
In 2017-18, Utah went 23-12, led by Justin Bibbins, Sedrick Barefield and David Collette. The Utes were third in the Pac-12 again but fell in their first game of the conference tournament to Oregon. Utah did advance to the NIT championship game, losing to Penn State, but it marked the second consecutive season without going to the Big Dance.
The following two seasons, Utah was an average team at best. Utah went 17-14 in 2018-19, finishing third in the Pac-12, but again lost in the first game of the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon.
Last year, the Utes struggled to a 16-15 regular-season record, but worse, they went just 7-11 in conference play — their first losing season in league play since 2012-13 — and fell to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, their third consecutive first-game exit.
Current state of the program
Ute fans have raised the issue of transfers during the Krystkowiak era, with 19 players transferring since 2016. But of those 19 players, only Devon Daniels (15.1 points per game this season), Both Gach (10.2 ppg this season) and Makol Mawien (7.4 ppg in 2019-20) ended up contributing heavily at another Division I school, so the transfer problem may not be as dire as it seems at first glance.
The Utes are below .500 so far this year both overall (6-7) and in conference play (3-6), with a nearly 20-point loss to rival BYU and multiple second-half collapses in Pac-12 play.
Utah likely will not make the NCAA Tournament again this year, missing out for the fifth consecutive season (officially, Utah has missed out on three consecutive tournaments so far since the 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, but with its first-round loss in the 2020 Pac-12 tournament, it wouldn’t have made an NCAA appearance).
No Utah coach has missed five consecutive trips to the Big Dance since Gardner did from 1967-71, when Utah was in the WAC, and no Ute coach has missed six straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament in the modern era.
Additionally, Utah hasn’t won a Pac-12 regular-season title or a Pac-12 Tournament title under Krystkowiak.
Attendance at Utah’s home games is nearly as low as it was during the depths of the Boylen era, as Huntsman Center attendance has dipped every year since the 2015-16 season. In early 2020, before COVID disallowed fan attendance, the Utes announced that the upper bowl would be curtained off for games unless ticket demand exceeded the estimated 8,500-seat lower-bowl capacity. It likely wouldn’t have.
Krystkowiak’s contract runs through the 2022-23 season, giving him two more seasons after this one to prove that he’s right for the job moving forward. He’s the 14th-highest paid coach in the nation, per USA Today, and the second-highest paid in the Pac-12, trailing only Mick Cronin at UCLA.
The 13 coaches ahead of him have all made the NCAA Tournament since 2017.
Krystkowiak is paid approximately $3.8 million per year and has an estimated buyout of $9.75 million as of 2020, according to USA Today.
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan gave Krystkowiak and the Utah program a vote of confidence in a recent Q&A session with the Deseret News.
“It’s a battle every day to practice and play. As I am of all our teams that are competing right now, I’m very proud of the effort. No one wants to win more than Larry Krystkowiak and his staff. I thought Timmy Allen’s comments (two weeks ago) were indicative of how that group feels. It’s early; it’s January. A lot of basketball ahead,” Harlan said. “There have been some exciting moments in there. They’ll keep working to have that game we’re all looking for — playing for 40 minutes. It doesn’t take away anything from the effort and the work that’s going into it on a daily basis. I’m very appreciative.”
With the athletic department struggling financially because of the pandemic, it stands to reason Utah won’t end Krystkowiak’s contract early, at least not this offseason, and pay the buyout of $9.75 million, plus pay for a new coach.
This Utah team is young, with three of its five leading scorers being underclassmen (the Utes only have four upperclassmen on the 17-man roster). The 2018, 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes, which make up the majority of the roster, were ranked 40th, 46th and 46th, respectively in the nation by 247 Sports.
Utah has the history, the fan support, the facilities and the recruiting to be a consistent NCAA Tournament team. Can Krystkowiak turn it around in the next two seasons and be the coach that gets the Utes back to consistent success in the tournament, or will his legacy be that he resurrected the Utah program from its worst shape in years, but couldn’t get the Utes to that next level?
Only time will tell.