Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — When Larry Krystkowiak was hired to coach the Montana Grizzlies in 2004, I was interviewing him about what influence Jerry Sloan may have had on his coaching style.
“I had heard so many stories about how hard he played, I tried to emulate that,” Krystkowiak said. “Not to play (exactly) like Jerry Sloan, but to have a similar game, where we stuck our noses in places where it didn’t belong.”
Quick, somebody get an ice pack.
If there’s anywhere his nose didn’t belong on Thursday, it was in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. Matched with No. 4-rated and RPI-leading Arizona, the Utes got beat 71-39. So much for upsets. Utah played the Wildcats closely in their game in Tucson and lost in overtime in Salt Lake. The theory was that they had a chance on a neutral court in Las Vegas.
But this was more than a punch in the nose; it was a crashing hook to the face of a glass-jawed tomato can. They were gone faster than Magic Johnson’s talk show.
So exactly how far back does this set Krystkowiak’s renovation project?
Far enough to get things back into perspective.
This Utah team had talent, but in terms of NCAA tournament worthiness, it was a couple of eggs short of an omelet.
After being a dreadful team for several years, the Utes finally got moving at the end of last season, advancing as far as the semifinal game of the conference tournament. Thanks to an infusion of Division I talent, this year they finished with a respectable 9-9 conference mark. Their confidence soared, aided by a ridiculously easy nonconference schedule.
Unlike the preceding two seasons, they were no longer a probable win for visiting teams, though they won just two road contests. Next year they have no reason not to expect continued improvement, with virtually the entire team returning. If things happen the way Krystkowiak plans, Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright (combined 1-of-14 shooting against Arizona) will come back all grown up for postseason play.
Arizona’s defense is impressive, but a first-team all-conference player (Wright) should have been able to score. While the Utes were competitive in conference, Thursday’s game illustrated how far they are from championship caliber: a few NBA players off the mark.
Utah is much improved, yet still just a few turnovers away from disaster when playing great teams.
Realistically, the loss doesn’t change much. Nobody on a national level thought the Utes had a chance at beating the Wildcats, even after two competitive games between the teams in the regular season. Arizona knows all about the postseason, and it came with its attitude intact.
Utah acted as though this was a regular day at the office.
Arizona is the one Pac-12 team the Utes have never defeated since joining the conference.
Kryskowiak knows what it takes to be tournament-worthy. His Montana teams made the cut both years he was the Grizzlies’ head coach. He said in 2004 that he wanted his teams to “play every practice and game like it’s your last one.”
In some ways Thursday’s game was the Utes’ last — at least as far as first-rate competition goes.
Still, embarrassing as it was, it shouldn’t set their progress back too far. Arizona can make a lot of teams look foolish. The Utes weren’t going to make to the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection, due to their nonconference schedule and poor road record. They would have had to win the conference’s automatic bid.
Their likely NIT invitation could prove more about their progress than the Arizona game. It’s one thing to lose to the nation’s No. 4 team, but the Utes need to make a good showing against someone their own size.
If they play a first-round NIT game and get beat, that would be far more reason to get their noses out of joint.
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