PALO ALTO, Calif. — On a snowy Sunday night in January, the Utah basketball team played its worst game of the season, falling behind from the opening tip and losing to Stanford by 31 points.
Now on a sunny Sunday afternoon in March, the Utes (11-16, 3-12) hope to have one of their best games of the year when they take on the Cardinal (16-13, 7-9) in a 3 p.m. MST game at Maples Pavilion.
Both teams are in desperate need of a victory as each comes into the game having lost four of their last five games (five of six for Utah). The Utes lost at Cal on Thursday night 64-46 in a game they led by eight late in the first half, while the Cardinal were beaten at home by Colorado 65-63 on Wednesday night after leading by 10 in the second half.
“Stanford was our worst game of the year — we weren’t ready from the opening bell,’’ said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “They kind of punched us in the mouth and we never responded. They did a really good job rebounding, and that’s where they really killed us last time was offensive rebounds."
Rebounding is one of several facets of the game in which the Utes need to improve in order to start earning victories. Over the past six games, the Utes have been outrebounded by nearly eight boards per game.
However, the lack of rebounding has sort of gone unnoticed as turnovers and poor shooting have plagued the Utes in recent losses. Against Cal, the Utes shot a season-low 29.3 percent from the field, and though they had just 11 turnovers, several in a row near the end of the first half turned the game in Cal’s favor.
Krystkowiak is well aware of the challenges his young team faces, but he still believes the Utes can finish the season well and make an impact in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas in two weeks.
“We plan on winning some games the next couple of weeks,’’ he said. “Our thought is it’s important for us to be playing properly and not turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds. That will give us an opportunity to fix what’s broken before we get to the tournament.’’
The Cardinal have a young team with no senior starters, led by 6-10 freshman Dwight Powell, who averages 15.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Other starters include sophomore guard Chasson Randle (13.8 ppg), junior forward Josh Huestis (10.4 ppg), junior guard Aaron Bright (8.5 ppg) and junior forward Andy Brown (6.5 ppg).
While noting that Stanford has a big size advantage on his team, Krystkowiak says the Utes have to limit mistakes and play possession by possession.
“We just have to stay engaged and play every possession like it’s the last play of the game,’’ he said. “We need to be playing with that sense of urgency in the next (three) games, and that’s going to help us in the tournament, no matter who we play.’’
UTE NOTES: After Sunday’s game, the Utes return home to play Oregon State Thursday night and Oregon Saturday afternoon. Last year, the Utes nearly pulled off a big upset, losing just 68-65 at Stanford. Krystkowiak and Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins were teammates on the 1986 San Antonio Spurs. Utah leads the Pac-12 and ranks 33rd national in field-goal percentage defense (39.0 percent). The Utes also lead the league in 3-point percentage (36.2) and free-throw percentage (75.1). Jason Washburn needs 12 points to become the 35th Ute player to score 1,000 points in his career. He also ranks fifth on the list for career field goal percentage at 57.0 percent.