SALT LAKE CITY — Upon their return from Christmas break, the Utah Utes are taking a workmanlike approach into the tasks at hand. Before opening Pac-12 competition next week against Oregon and Oregon State, they’ve got one more nonconference game left to play.
It isn’t Duke, or even Evergreen State for that matter. It’s St. Katherine. Yes, those very same Firebirds who were grounded by Utah Valley (89-37) and Weber State (107-36) earlier this month.
Tipoff is set for Saturday afternoon at 2 in the Huntsman Center.
“It’s got a lot more to do about us than it does who we’re playing,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
The Utes (10-1), who haven’t played a game since defeating Texas State 69-50 on Dec. 18, are eager to fix what sophomore guard Brandon Taylor referred to as “some loose screws” when it comes to things like execution and transition defense.
“We need to tighten up a little bit before Pac-12 play starts,” said Taylor, who added that the team is looking forward to the remaining portion of the season.
Krystkowiak called it a toughness and execution time of year, noting that the margin of error in the Pac-12 is quite small as evidenced by the number of close games Utah has been involved in. He appreciated Taylor’s analogy on the topic.
“I’m glad Brandon is thinking that way, but there’s more than a few screws — there’s a tool chest full of stuff that we’re going to have to get better at,” Krystkowiak said.
Sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge noted that it pretty much involves everything.
“We just need to keep executing on offense and then just keep working hard on defense,” he said. “Defense will keep us in games and win us some games in the Pac-12.”
While St. Katherine isn’t expected to put up much of a threat offensively, Loveridge expects the Firebirds to come in and play as hard as they can. They do have some local ties. Former Runnin’ Ute David Reichner is an assistant coach and Union High graduates Jonathan Wood and Stephen Merrell topped the team in scoring with 11 and nine, respectively, in the losses to UVU and Weber State.
That aside, Utah’s nonconference finale lacks a lot of other storylines. Even so, Loveridge likes how the schedule is structured — getting a game in before Pac-12 play begins and most likely in a situation where everyone will get back into the swing of things.
“It’s good how it plays out. We wouldn’t want to come off break and just jump right into it,” Loveridge said. “We get to play a game and get our game legs back.”
EXTRA STUFF: St. Katherine is an NAIA school in Encinitas, Calif., with 102 students. ... The Firebirds played at San Diego State Friday night. ... Krystkowiak said that he received a text from Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham congratulating him on the BYU win and the successful preseason. He also expressed excitement about the upcoming Pac-12 campaign. ... The Utes have won 12 straight games at home. ... St. Katherine’s has a 34-year-old freshman in 6-foot-9, 250-pound Dale Austin.
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