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Homestand against Pac-12-leading Los Angeles schools could make, or break, Runnin’ Utes’ up-and-down season

Utah is careening toward a third-straight mediocre men’s basketball season, but a strong finish against UCLA, USC this week could erase a lot of bitter memories.

Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) goes for the basket against UCLA Bruins guard Jules Bernard (3) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) drives on UCLA Bruins guard Jules Bernard (3) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Allen and his Utah teammates host the Bruins on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in a pivotal Pac-12 game this week.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

As they’ve navigated this most unusual college basketball season in the midst of a pandemic, the Runnin’ Utes have maintained that they are better than their disappointing, sub .500 record indicates, pointing to wins over Arizona and Colorado and close losses at UCLA and Oregon as proof that they can beat any team in the Pac-12 Conference.

There won’t be a better week to prove that than this one, with league leaders UCLA and USC visiting the Huntsman Center to start a regular-season-ending four-game homestand for the Utes (9-10, 6-9 Pac-12). Utah hosts the second-place Bruins (16-5, 12-3) Thursday and the first-place (by a half-game) Trojans (19-4, 13-3) Saturday.

Of course, the Utes have lost three straight, including last Saturday’s deflating 67-64 loss at Oregon that ended with a controversial double dribble call on star player Timmy Allen that eventually got head coach Larry Krystkowiak reprimanded by the Pac-12 for his comments critical of the officiating.

In a strange way, the last-second loss to the NCAA Tournament-bound Ducks, coupled with a 74-56 loss at Oregon State two days prior in which Krystkowiak said the Utes “really didn’t respect the game” and the postgame locker room “got pretty animated” might have galvanized the Utes moving forward.

At least, that was junior forward Riley Battin’s take when he spoke to reporters via Zoom Wednesday morning.

“I think we showed a lot of grit, going in there (without two starters) and being in a position to win the game,” Battin said. “I think it just kinda reiterates that point that we can beat anyone when we play well. I think we all feel like we left some stuff on the table that game and probably should have won it. I think it gives us some confidence moving forward.”

Said Krystkowiak during his radio show Monday night: “We walked out of that arena (Saturday night) feeling a heckuva lot better about how we approached it and how we played. … There are obviously not any moral victories, but that is a game where we played really good basketball consistently for some long stretches.”

Making a big deal about the importance of any game is a bit of a stretch this season when schedules have been jumbled, players have missed contests, and the COVID-19 pandemic has kept the spectators away and made every game feel like a neutral-court affair at the local YMCA. But it could be argued that what happens to the Utes these next four games will have a long-term impact on how the program is viewed by its fans.

Asked how he is presenting the next stretch of games to his team, Krystkowiak said Wednesday via Zoom that “the framing is how we are going to beat UCLA. That’s where we have focused our attention. It is the next game. Then we will turn our attention to USC. It doesn’t do us any good to talk about the last four games, because we are only going to be as good as our next game. That’s where the focus has been.”

Will the Utes be firing on all cylinders heading into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas March 10-13? Or will they be limping toward the finish line with their coach’s future cloudy due to a third straight mediocre season?

They went 16-15 last year, 17-14 in 2018-19. They haven’t won a Pac-12 Tournament game since March 11, 2016, an 82-78 win over California in the Pac-12 semifinals before an 88-57 loss to Oregon in the championship game.

Check out any social media website or fan message board, and this much becomes obvious: the natives are long past getting restless. Ending the season on a high note, especially against UCLA and USC, and making a dent in the Pac-12 Tournament will go a long way toward restoring some confidence in the once-proud program.

“Yeah, I think that is probably the biggest thing right now, all of us being on the same page, being connected,” Battin acknowledged. “The teams that are like that are the ones that usually make a run in the Pac-12 Tournament, so that is definitely a huge key.”

Krystkowiak acknowledged the league is full of parity, but he also knows “there is nothing magical about us being at home. We just got to go out and scrap like we did in our last game, and realize that the margin for error is slim for our team.”

Sitting in ninth place in the Pac-12 standings, the Utes most likely won’t finish in the top five and get a first-round bye in the conference tournament, but seeding isn’t as important this year as in the past, since the league really doesn’t have any dominant teams.

USC, which plays at Colorado Thursday, is probably the closest, with a No. 19 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and a NET ranking of 14. UCLA’s NET ranking is 41, Utah’s is 97.

“I think some years (seeding) does matter,” Battin said. “It depends on what the caliber of teams are in the league and everything. But I think this year everyone is kinda on an equal playing field. I think anyone can beat anyone. And anyone can lose to anyone also.”

Because most teams won’t play a full 20-game conference schedule due to COVID-19 cancellations, teams’ won-loss percentage record will be used to determine tournament seedings. The team with the best percentage will be seeded No. 1, and on down the line.

Utah could get in 19 games, which has to be considered a big win considering the way the season started back in December with many of the players and even Krystkowiak himself getting infected.

“Being able to get 19 out of 20 is pretty good,” Battin said. “I think that is a lot of credit to (head athlete trainer) Trevor Jameson and the whole COVID staff that is working on stuff here.”

Battin is one Ute who won’t have trouble getting up for UCLA and USC. The 6-foot-9 forward is from Oak Park, California, just outside Los Angeles, and was recruited by UCLA, but not offered a scholarship by the Bruins.

“I definitely have an extra chip on my shoulder, playing the L.A. schools, for sure,” he said. “I will just do whatever it takes to help us get a win. Every game, I have the same desire to beat them. I think it will be good to beat them. … It is just fun playing against my hometown team.”

The Utes haven’t forgotten the last meeting, on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) at Pauley Pavilion. Utah jumped out to a 16-4 lead, trailed 41-32 at halftime and then staged a late comeback, only to falter at the end by committing a turnover on its final possession and losing 72-70.

“There are a couple plays down the stretch that we would like back,” Battin said.

Krystkowiak wouldn’t say Wednesday whether 6-foot-9 forward Mikael Jantunen will play Thursday. The big Finn has been in quarantine protocol since returning from Finnish national team duty in Europe last week.

“Yeah, I am not going to get into (revealing) it at all,” he said. “We are just going to keep grinding and not talk too much about his deal. Some of that is still in the hands of our medical people. That is outside of my area right now.”

Point guard Rylan Jones has missed the last four games with a shoulder injury. His status is also not being disclosed.