Tom Smart, University of Utah Athletics
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged it wasn't easy. His decision to dismiss Josh "Jiggy" Watkins from the squad for violating unspecified team rules came after much pondering.
However, a "pattern of behavior" by Watkins led to Wednesday's announcement that the senior guard's career with the Runnin' Utes was over. Watkins was suspended for three days and one game under similar circumstances earlier this season.
"It was one of the hardest things I ever did," Krystkowiak said. "I thought about it for 30 hours or so and leaned on a lot of people and prayed. But it was the best thing for our program."
In a released statement earlier in the day, Krystkowiak noted that the integrity of the program as a whole cannot by sacrificed by any individual.
"The well-being of our program will always come first," he said. "This was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. I really wish Josh well and I hope he remains at Utah to finish his degree."
Watkins, the lone senior on the active roster, was leading the Utes with 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. He also topped the team in minutes played (31.1 per game) and steals (17).
On Jan. 5, Watkins scored 20 points and hit the game-winning shot with 3.3 seconds remaining as Utah picked up its first Pac-12 victory with a 62-60 overtime decision over Washington State in the Huntsman Center.
Krystkowiak said parting ways with Watkins is difficult. He hoped the earlier suspension would be an "eye-opening deal" and not happen again. A source close to the team said Watkins missed practice on Monday, effectively sealing his fate. Krystkowiak told reporters he just ran out of lifelines with Watkins.
"Basketball meant an awful lot to him. He meant an awful lot to our program and it just kind of got to a point where it was pushed over the wall and couldn't sacrifice the program any longer for an individual," Krystkowiak said while expressing no regrets about taking the action he did. "I'm hoping that he continues here in school and gets his degree. He's so close to getting his degree. Whatever he decides to move on to it's a heart-felt lesson, but I do hope down the road this is something he can lean on and learn from."
While calling Watkins a great kid who is fun to be around, Krystkowiak noted that the accountability issues overshadowed such variables. Same goes for Utah's ability to win a couple of more games, perhaps, with Watkins on the team.
The Utes (4-13, 1-4) host Arizona Thursday and Arizona State on Saturday.
"There's just a bigger picture for us," he said.
After Wednesday's practice in the Huntsman Center, Watkins' former teammates expressed a determination to focus on the task at hand.
"As a team we just have to move on," said junior Chris Hines. "We're ready to play and compete and we're ready for Arizona."
The whole team, he continued, has to step up in Watkins' absence.
Junior center Jason Washburn said that the players have sent texts to Watkins, telling him they are sorry and that he will be missed.
"Coach did what he thought was best for our program and we're moving on," Washburn said before looking ahead. "We're just going to play Utah basketball. We're just going to play our hearts out every night and see what happens in the end."
True freshman Kareem Storey is expected to replace Watkins as the starting point guard. He's confident about meeting the challenges ahead.
"We respect Coach's decision. We just have to move on," Storey said. "We have to play hard, play as a team and look forward to the future."
The Utes, he added, have to stay focused on what they have to do to get better.
And that, Krystkowiak noted, will involve big changes on offense.
"We're going to have to play an entirely different style," he said. "The ball is going to be moving a lot more. We're going to be a third or fourth option kind of team."
The pick-and-roll termination, where Watkins excelled, may no longer be in the mix.
Things are quickly changing up on the hill.
Krystkowiak said the situation is providing a spark and a fire with the players. They know the 15-16 points that Watkins provided will need to be scored some other way and that shots are going to be available to other guys.
"Our attention to detail, I think, is going to have to be called into play," Krystkowiak said.
Watkins earned honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference recognition as a junior. He averaged 14.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
Watkins was recruited to Utah by former head coach Jim Boylen after leading Howard College in Texas to the 2010 NJCAA Division I national championship. Watkins was the tournament MVP.
In high school, Watkins was named Manhattan Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, six assists and five rebounds per game as a senior.
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