Runnin’ Utes focusing on finishing strong — at the rim and for the season
Having secured a No. 7 seed for the first time ever, Utah will meet No. 10 seed Washington at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, and will face No. 2 seed USC on Thursday if it advances in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — By coach Larry Krystkowiak’s count, the last time the Runnin’ Utes played Washington, they missed 10 layups in the first half alone and came out on the short end of an 83-79 decision in Seattle.
Utah won the first game in the season series, easily dumping UW 76-62 in Salt Lake City way back on Dec. 3. But on Jan. 24 at Alaska Airlines Arena, Utah’s failure to finish was glaring.
So as the seventh-seeded Utes (11-12, 8-11) and 10th-seeded Huskies (5-20, 4-16) prepare for their opener in the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday, it is no wonder that Utah’s head coach is focusing on the importance of a big finish — during the game and throughout the tournament, should the Utes emerge victorious.
Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (11-12, 8-11)
vs. No. 10 Washington (5-20, 4-16)
Wednesday, 5 p.m. MST
At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: 700 AM
Tipoff is at approximately 5 p.m. MST — pending the 8-9 game pitting Arizona State and Washington State ending on time — at T-Mobile Arena, where the Utes are 0-4 in Pac-12 Tournament games. Wednesday’s 7-10 game winner will advance to meet No. 2 USC at 6:30 p.m. MST Thursday in Las Vegas.
This is the first time Utah has been a No. 7 seed in the tournament; the Utes are 6-9 overall in this conference tournament, but have never won it. They do have a big win at T-Mobile Arena, however, having upset then-No. 6 Kentucky 69-66 here in 2019.
What is the key to Utah winning its first Pac-12 Tournament game since 2016? Solving Washington’s zone will be an important step, Krystkowiak said. And that means getting the ball inside to big men Branden Carlson and Mikael Jantunen and shaking wing Timmy Allen free inside and out.
“We gotta understand what we are good at offensively,” Krystkowiak said. “We led our conference in 2-point field goal percentage, and we gotta get the ball inside, we gotta finish.”
Allen was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team on Tuesday, but no other Utes were honored by the league.
The Utes, who are coming off one of their best performances in years, a 98-59 demolition of Arizona State last Saturday at the Huntsman Center, are also one of best free-throw shooting teams in the country.
“We gotta understand what we are good at offensively. We led our conference in 2-point field goal percentage, and we gotta get the ball inside, we gotta finish.” — Larry Krystkowiak
They shoot freebies at a .792 clip (274 of 346), which is second-best in the league and seventh-best in the country. Utah is on pace to set a school record for free-throw percentage. The 1992-93 Utes shot .791 from the line to set the standard.
Getting out in transition and getting some easy buckets, before UW can set up its zone, especially at an arena that will have few fans and is not known as a shooter’s gym, will be important for the Utes, the coach said.
“You are going to be taking a lot of teams’ best punches,” he said. “If we are going to win some games here in Las Vegas, it is going to take everybody. We can’t play a six-man rotation, a seven-man rotation. There are going to be opportunities for everybody to step up.”
Defensively, the Utes have been solid all season, especially after Jantunen returned from Europe and a short stint with the Finnish national team in a EuroBasket 2022 qualifier that caused him to miss four Utah games. Staying out of foul trouble will be big, because Krystkowiak has one of the thinnest benches in the league.
That wasn’t the case vs. ASU on Saturday, as guys such as Lahat Thioune, Jaxon Brenchley and Ian Martinez contributed to the onslaught. More of the same will be needed this week.
Utah won’t be intimidated by USC should it advance — the Utes drubbed the Trojans 71-61 in Salt Lake City on Feb. 27, a result that kept USC from claiming a piece of the Pac-12 regular-season title with Oregon.
Meeting with reporters via Zoom after the Utes landed in Las Vegas on Monday night, Krystkowiak was hesitant to say the Utes are peaking at the right time, but he did acknowledge “a great practice” on Monday and a “really good film session just now.”
Just the same, memories of losses to some of the weaker teams in the league makes it difficult to predict a long tournament run for these guys.
“I wouldn’t want to feel like we are dazed and confused and unable to put a finger on what makes us good,” Krystkowiak said. “We have obviously competed against all the top teams in our conference. There have been points where we have been really good. There are also points where we are not good.”
The 10th-year coach is framing the tournament as a “great opportunity” to put everything together and make a late-season run that will go a long way toward preparing the Utes for bigger and better things next year, when they could have every player back.
The only senior on the roster is Alfonso Plummer, the second-leading scorer (13.2 average) who can return next year if he wants, taking the NCAA’s blanket waiver to freeze eligibility due to the pandemic. As of last Friday, Plummer had not decided.
“We are not seeking perfection, but certainly we have to be a lot better in the major facets of the games, and I know our guys can do that. So there is no reason that we shouldn’t feel good.” — Larry Krystkowiak
“We are not seeking perfection, but certainly we have to be a lot better in the major facets of the games, and I know our guys can do that,” Krystkowiak said. “So there is no reason that we shouldn’t feel good.”
In many ways, the Utes go as star forward Allen goes, and the Mesa, Arizona, native has been playing well lately. Allen leads the Utes in scoring (16.8), rebounding (6.0) and assists, with 91.
Krystkowiak said “talk is cheap” this time of year and Utah still has a lot to prove, having been picked to finish eighth in the league in preseason polls. A loss to the lowly Huskies would bring back the same old questions regarding this team’s inconsistent nature.
“You gotta get performances out of four or five guys where you say, ‘Man, they were pretty good,’ in order to advance,” Krystkowiak said. “It is kinda right before us, our guys have stayed engaged and I feel good about it, but certainly not in a position where you are resting on any kind of performance against Arizona State. The slate is wiped clean for a lot of these teams here in Las Vegas and this is kind of a survival of the fittest.”
For the Utes, that means putting together a big finish.