Upset win over Colorado showed Runnin’ Utes are one of the most enigmatic college basketball teams in the country
Improbable victory on CU’s home floor moved Utah into the top 100 of the NET rankings, gave Utes momentum for this week’s games against Arizona schools
Utah’s thrilling 77-74 come-from-way-behind win over Colorado in Boulder on Saturday afternoon proved what the Utes’ coaches and players have been saying for more than a month now.
When this team is dialed in, it can hang with almost any team in the country. When it loses focus, it is susceptible to puzzling losses, especially in Pac-12 games.
Defense has been Utah’s constant this season; When the Utes are sharing the ball, cutting down on turnovers and keeping opponents off the offensive glass, like they did the last half of the second half Saturday, they are dangerous.
“We got a little bit of momentum, and you felt that magic of what it is like to have the ball popping. And when it coincides with shots going in, that gave us an awful lot of confidence.” — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak.
After the victory, Utes coach Larry Kyrstkowiak purposefully positioned himself for a Zoom meeting with reporters in front of the locker of a Colorado women’s volleyball player by the name of Zoe Neverdowski.
His tongue-in-cheek message: there was never a doubt that Utah was going to pull out the game.
“I think SportsCenter could have some fun with that,” said the coach who is also of Polish descent, referring to ESPN’s nightly sports wrap-up show.
It was a feel-good win and “well-deserved” for the Utes, who “have been through an awful lot,” Krystkowiak said, while also mentioning that almost every team in the country has been on a COVID-19 roller-coaster ride the past six months.
The bounce-back win after last Sunday’s deflating 83-79 loss at Washington was just one of several positive developments for Utah (7-7, 4-6 Pac-12) over the weekend.
The first good news came Friday, when it was announced that Utah wouldn’t have to travel to Tempe, Arizona, on Tuesday for a makeup game with Arizona State. The Utes won’t have to play another of those four-games-in-eight-days scenarios after all.
Instead, they will play the Sun Devils on “another mutually agreeable date,” most likely in the week leading up to the Pac-12 Tournament, scheduled to begin March 10 in Las Vegas. Utah’s next game is Thursday vs. Arizona at the Huntsman Center (5 p.m., FS1).
“Well, I don’t know that there is a place to squeeze it in (before the first week of March), if you look at our schedule after Thursday,” Krystkowiak said. “There is quite a gap between our last game and the Pac-12 Tournament. I am confident we will be able to fit it in, and hopefully we can get all 20 (games) in before that.”
Speaking of the conference tournaments, several college basketball coaches around the country have questioned whether they should be played this year, due to the pandemic. A recent survey conducted by CBS Sports showed that of 41 head coaches who were polled, 27% said conference tournaments should not be held this year.
No Pac-12 Tournament would not be good for Utah, which will not go to the Big Dance if it does not win its conference tournament because the Utes are not even close to the bubble. The big win over Colorado bumped Utah’s NET ranking from 107 to 97 and improved Utah’s Quad 1 record to 1-4, but the Pac-12 is quite mediocre this season and no other opportunities for Quad 1 wins currently exist.
More good news for the Utes came Saturday night when Pac-12 reporter Jon Wilner of the Mercury News reported that during a meeting last week the Pac-12’s athletic directors “showed no interest in canceling” the tournament.
So there is a path to the NCAA Tournament for the Utes, arguably the best .500 team in the country.
Beating Colorado, whose NET ranking fell from 17 to 20 with the upset loss on its home floor, “is a good start for us to keep winning,” said Utah senior guard Alfonso Plummer. “We beat a top-five team in the Pac-12. It was a rally important win today. We are happy.”
Plummer was unquestionably the star of the game, having scored all 23 of his points in the second half when the Utes overcame a 19-point deficit, but other players had their moments that kept Utah from being swept by the Buffs.
For instance, Riley Battin came off the bench to score nine points, while freshman Pelle Larsson put the clamps on CU point guard McKinley Wright, a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.
“Well, there were a lot of guys that stepped up,” Krystkowiak said. “I thought Miki (Jantunen) a light bulb kinda flipped on with him.”
Jantunen had nine points, six rebounds and two big assists.
“We got a little bit of momentum, and you felt that magic of what it is like to have the ball popping,” Krystkowiak said. “And when it coincides with shots going in, that gave us an awful lot of confidence.”