LOS ANGELES — When it comes to describing his first season at the University of Utah, Larry Krystkowiak uses an analogy about getting something painted.
While continually thinking about what you're doing and the final result, he explained, there are things to do that aren't a whole lot of fun, like sanding and taping.
The preparation, though, eventually pays off.
It's a blueprint, of sorts, that Krystkowiak has in place for the Runnin' Utes.
"I feel like we're just kind of popping the lid off the can now," he said. "And we're going to be able to start reaping some of the benefits or some of the rewards and really get moving forward."
Despite a topsy-turvy initial season at the helm, Krystkowiak has maintained his resolve. He's had plenty of challenges to tackle, including a roster overhaul and a late start to recruiting.
And more, much more.
Of the four returnees from 2010-11, seniors David Foster and "Jiggy" Watkins failed to stay on the active roster. Foster was sidelined all season long with a foot injury and Krystkowiak wound up dismissing Watkins from the team in January for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
The Utes enter Wednesday's Pac-12 Tournament game against Colorado (9:30 p.m. MST, Root Sports) with a 6-24 record, including a 3-15 mark in conference play. They've had highs, like upsetting Stanford at home, but a lot more lows, including a pair of eight-game losing streaks and no wins away from the Huntsman Center.
None of the losses, however, were as bad as the last road game. Saturday's 94-48 setback at Oregon was the most-lopsided defeat in program history. It also extended the Utes' skid away from Salt Lake City to 17 games over two seasons.
The abundance of negative situations, though, has yet to alter Krystkowiak's approach.
"If Coach K was ever disappointed or dismayed or doubtful about the season, we never saw it," said junior center Jason Washburn. "If he was ever worried about the season, we never saw it. He was always positive."
Washburn added that Krystkowiak has been quite resilient and has done a phenomenal job with the Utes.
Utah athletics director Chris Hill also likes what he's seeing.
"I feel very good about what's evolved with the program and I'm a realist. I know it's going to be hard and I know we've got a big hill to climb," Hill said. "But I'm really excited, to be honest, that I think that we can build this thing. It's going to take some time, but a lot of basketball is based on effort and team play and good defense and I think that's what we're establishing."
After closing out the home schedule with a thrilling 58-57 victory over Stanford on Feb. 25, Hill credits Krystkowiak and his staff, as well as the players, for the team's hard play late in the season — especially after experiencing so many struggles.
"The moral victory thing gets real old," Hill said. "We all know that. We all want to win."
Hill has also seen another side of Krystkowiak.
"He takes things in stride. This year is a real test of how you're going to handle situations," Hill said. "Larry's not oblivious to how things are, but at the same time he takes a measured approach — more than I anticipated."
It fits into the overall scheme of things. While acknowledging that expectations for wins and losses weren't very high because of circumstances, Hill points out that the Utes have definitely improved and are getting the job done academically and conditioning-wise under Krystkowiak.
"We all understand where we want to go but it's a step-by-step process," Hill said. "Larry was dealt about as tough of a hand as you can be dealt."
There have been times, Krystkowiak admitted, when he wondered if yet another unexpected challenge or two loomed on the horizon,
"There was a few of those moments," Krystkowiak said. "But it's kind of like you preach to your players — next point. You've got to forget about the last point and start focusing on what you can control. So you've got to really kind of heed your own advice and make sure you're doing the same thing."
It's an approach made easier, Krystkowiak explained, because of the players and the fans. Things haven't gone according to script and it's been a rough year on everyone, he continued, but everyone's spirits are up and no one has thrown in the towel.
"We didn't have a lot of attitudes and egos. The kids coming to work all the time have made it pretty darn easy," Krystkowiak said. "The people in the community have been patient and kind of understanding as to where we need to get. It's been pretty tough but I think it's all going to be worthwhile."
Hill is excited about the future and appreciates how Krystkowiak is handling things. He says the coach is confident in a modest way.
"I think anybody that knows basketball knows that we've seen progress." Hill said.
And more is expected with talented players like West Jordan's Jordan Loveridge joining the program. The highly touted signee considers Krystkowiak a great all-around guy on and off the court.
"I know when I go up there he's going to be like a second dad to me. That's how he treats his players. You see him around his family and it's the same with his players," Loveridge said. "He's going to make you work hard. He's not going to let you go through things. If you're doing the wrong thing, then you can't play for him. I love that about him."
Krystkowiak made an immediate impression.
"The first day he could recruit he was in my gym," Loveridge said. "So that showed me from there, that's the coach — that's the one I want."
Not even a 61-60 exhibition loss to Adams State changed things. Loveridge was on hand for that game in the Huntsman Center on Nov. 4.
"They didn't do too well, but now they're competing with every team in the Pac-12," Loveridge said while noting he also attended the Feb. 25 victory over Stanford in the home finale. "That was great. I just know it's going to even get better from there. So it's very exciting."
Washburn shares Loveridge's optimism.
"When I first met Coach K I didn't know really what to expect," he said while noting that Krystkowiak doesn't really talk as much as his predecessor Jim Boylen did. "He's much more about work on the court. Let's do it, not talk about it so much. Let's just go out and let's do it, let's work on it."
Washburn acknowledged it was a little bit of an adjustment at first, but has proved to be quite beneficial.
"We go out on the court and we work hard — every day," Washburn said. "I've come to really appreciate and respect how Coach K does things and I've really been enjoying it."
Krystkowiak's background as a player and coach, Washburn noted, shows that he knows what he's doing and is good at it. "All I had to do was listen. I think he's helped me improve tremendously over the year."
The education, however, is a two-way street. Krystkowiak insists coaching is always a process. Since taking over up on the hill, he says he's learned a great deal basketball-wise, team-wise and organizationally.
"It really should never end. I don't think you ever get to the point where you think you have all the answers because that's kind of a time that life jumps up and bites you right on the rump — when you think you've got it all figured out," Krystkowiak said. "So I'm always trying to pick people's brains and find a better way to do something or learn a better way to do something you know."
California's Mike Montgomery, who was the head coach at Montana when Krystkowiak won three consecutive Big Sky Conference Player of the Year awards, has been his mentor in the basketball world.
"I look forward to spending time with him once the season's over and picking his brain," Krystkowiak said of Montgomery, who is now technically a conference rival. "We've also kind of crossed into a new neighborhood. Before I might be asking him questions or asking how they run certain things. Now he's probably not as eager to share it with me."
Coaches, however, have been comfortable swapping stories with Krystkowiak about the difficulties involved in building a program.
It's one of the neat things, Krystkowiak explained, about the coaching profession. Those who have gone through a similar situation have either phoned Krystkowiak or shared stories with him on the recruiting trail. They've offered encouragement in the form of sayings like "all things will pass" and predictions that the hard times will be a thing of the past in two or three years.
"You just can't speed up the clock and you can't get to where you want to be without going through all the steps necessary," Krystkowiak said. "So a lot of people basketball-wise, that have gone through that, they remind you that 'Hey, it's going to be fine.'"
In the meantime, Krystkowiak is appreciative of the support he's getting from a lot of positive folks like his wife and kids, as well as his brother.
And then there's the whole job thing. Krystkowiak loves what he's doing. The butterflies associated with games each week is something he truly enjoys.36 comments on this story
"It's not a monotonous job. It's not like you're doing the same job 9-to-5 and just punching in and going to work," Krystkowiak said. "So it's been great. I absolutely love it. It seems like every morning you get up, it's like a jump ball."
And even better.
"I'm really fortunate," Krystkowiak said. "Because a lot of people don't have that opportunity to do something that they love."
No. 6 Colorado (19-11, 11-7)
vs. No. 11 Utah (6-24, 3-15)
Wednesday, 9:30 MST
Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV: FSN (Root Sports) Radio: 700AM
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