Runnin’ Utes begin four-game road stretch brimming with confidence, looking for more redemption
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak and center Branden Carlson say the Utes are starting to play some of their best basketball of the rocky and pandemic-altered 2020-21 season
With an NET ranking of 83 and a No. 67 standing in Kenpom.com as of Tuesday afternoon, Utah’s men’s basketball team will probably have to win the Pac-12 Tournament next month to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, even after it upset Colorado and Arizona in back-to-back games recently.
Of course, that’s assuming there is a Pac-12 Tournament this year.
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan assured everyone last week on his bimonthly appearance on ESPN 700 AM radio that the league is moving forward with its plans to conduct the men’s tournament March 10-13 at T-Mobile Arena and the women’s tournament March 4-7 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, but with COVID-19 forcing the postponement and/or cancellation of games on almost a daily basis in February, nothing can be set in stone.
Utes on the air
Utah (8-7, 5-6)
at California (7-14, 2-12)
Thursday, 4 p.m. MST
Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, California
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: 700 AM
For what it’s worth, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said last week before the Utes rolled Arizona 73-58 that he believes it is important to have a conference tournament this year, even while other coaches around the country have wondered about the health ramifications and prudence of staging the big money-makers during a pandemic.
Mostly, coaches are concerned with the NCAA’s mandate that teams have seven straight days of negative COVID-19 tests among their Tier 1 personnel — players, coaches, trainers, managers, etc. — before they leave for Indianapolis and the March Madness bubble.
“I mean, we gotta be united, right?” Krystkowiak said when asked if he believes any teams will opt out of conference tournaments. “Just like earlier in the season, the decision was made league-wide that if certain states or certain institutions were going to be shut down, then we were going to be (united) as a league, and we were going to do things as a league, and we made a lot of decisions with that in mind.”
Currently eighth in the Pac-12 standings with a 5-6 league record, 8-7 overall, Utah embarks on its Bay Area road swing this week and its Oregon road swing next week. Barring postponements, Utah will play five games in 12 days once it meets Cal (7-14, 2-12) on Thursday at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, California.
“We have made some strides in (important) areas, but you are only as good as your next game and we are not hanging our hat on anything we’ve accomplished. It is about going on the road in the Bay Area and trying to be competitive. This is a mature group that way, so we don’t have to try and play any Jedi mind tricks on anybody. It is just about going out and competing.” — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak
“I believe we have probably got five NCAA Tournament teams at this point,” Krystkowiak said, referring to USC, UCLA, Colorado, Oregon and Stanford. Sixth-place Arizona (13-6) is not eligible for postseason play due to a one-year self-imposed ban.
That means barely above .500 teams such as Utah, Oregon State (10-8) and Washington State (11-8) are starting to look ahead to Las Vegas as their ticket to the Big Dance. Utah, for one, has as much momentum as anyone.
“We have made some strides in (important) areas, but you are only as good as your next game and we are not hanging our hat on anything we’ve accomplished,” Krystkowiak said Tuesday. “It is about going on the road in the Bay Area and trying to be competitive. This is a mature group that way, so we don’t have to try and play any Jedi mind tricks on anybody. It is just about going and competing.”
Meeting with reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday morning, Utes center Branden Carlson said the team is bursting with confidence right now, thanks to the comeback at Colorado and the way the Utes absolutely dominated Arizona — which traveled to Boulder two days after falling to the Utes and pushed the Buffaloes to the limit before dropping an 82-79 contest.
“We all had good games (against Arizona),” Carlson said. “We played great defense, studied up on our scouting reports. Yeah, the preparation we put in paid off, so it was good to get those wins.”
Have the Utes turned the corner? They’ve won four of their last six and three of their last four after a rough start in conference play.
“Definitely,” Carlson said. “I think we are on the rise up, because I think our team is a lot better than our record shows. We are a better team, we have better chemistry than what we have seen. We are better at just what we do. From here on out, we are going to be showing what we really can do as a team.”
There was a time when the Utes feared Pac-12 road games, having gone the entire 2019-20 season without winning one. That’s no longer the case, after they dumped WSU 71-56 in Pullman and CU 77-74 in Boulder. If not for a last-minute, turnover-fueled meltdown at Washington, they could easily be taking a three-game road winning streak into Haas on Thursday.
“We have enough data right now to validate the fact that we can play some pretty good basketball,” Krystkowiak said. “And there is also enough data to show when we are not (playing well). You keep building off the experience that you have throughout the course of a year. That’s all you can do.”
Carlson said all the losses have been hard to digest, but the redemption has been that much more sweet. Another chance comes Thursday, since the Bears upset the Utes 72-63 at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 16.
The recent success “just shows that we could have beat those teams. We had it. We were there the whole game,” Carlson said. “Yeah, every loss is just hard. But it is just knowing that we could have stayed in it if we had taken care of the ball, did a few things differently, made a few more shots, got a few more defensive rebounds and stopped them from second-chance opportunities. It would have been a different ball game. You just kind of learn from it and move on to the next one.”
Knowing that, what really matters now is what happens in Vegas.