Utah basketball: Improved Runnin' Utes eager to start making an impact in the Pac-12

Published: Tuesday, April 1 2014 6:45 p.m. MDT

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak as the University of Utah is defeated by the fourth ranked University of Arizona 71-39 in the second round of the PAC 12 Men's basketball tournament Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak has a symbolic thought about the Utes and their relatively new surroundings in the Pac-12. He pictures everyone kind of being in a classroom with three or four guys in Arizona uniforms and others sporting UCLA gear, etc. Then, he added, there’s always the new kid in the school.

Krystkowiak said the latter is a role the Utes have had the past few years.

“Now we need to start believing that we belong in the league,” Krystkowiak explained. “And beyond it being new, let’s start having an impact. Let’s start getting the highest grades in this class and start believing that we belong.

“It really starts now,” he continued. “It doesn’t begin in September when we start practice. But it’s just kind of the change in mindset around here.”

After winning just eight conference games over their first two seasons in the Pac-12, the Utes broke through and went 9-9 in 2013-14. The setbacks came by a combined total of just 43 points and included three overtime losses.

In reviewing the season, Krystkowiak acknowledged feeling a bit “conflicted.” He didn’t know if that was the right word, but explained that he was kind of torn between two different mindsets — knowing the Utes made progress, but also knowing that they were a few close games away from doing something pretty special.

“So there’s a little bit of the 'wouldas, couldas, shouldas' built into our year,” Krystkowiak said, then adding: “My assessment with it is we weren’t ready to win those games.”

Add a two-point shortcoming to Boise State in nonconference play to the mix and Utah’s first 10 losses this past season were decided by 45 points. The Utes held leads in many of the games.

Krystkowiak said the next step for the Utes is to capture the moment and play with the same sense of urgency from start to finish.

“Maybe we weren’t ready for it yet. We weren’t ready to handle it. It’s all part of the process as we continue to evolve. Hopefully we don’t have as many close games,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s goal No. 1. Let’s not put ourselves through that. Let’s take advantage of the situation when we’re ahead in a lot of those games. Let’s just try to take the spirit away from the other team.”

Krystkowiak noted that the Utes had the opportunity to do so in their 70-58 loss to Saint Mary’s in the NIT. They were up by 13 points late in the first half but wound up giving up an 8-2 run down the stretch — cutting their lead to seven instead of extending it and possibly demoralizing the Gaels.

The game put an end to Utah’s first winning season since 2008-09. The Utes, who suffered a 71-39 loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals five days earlier, wound up 21-12.

Despite the disappointing finish, Krystkowiak acknowledges that a lot of positive things happened during the season and that he’s “super proud” of how hard the team worked. As for the disappointing stuff, Krystkowiak is a believer that things happen for a reason. He’s also looking forward and not back.

“It’s what’s in front of you,” said Krystkowiak, who added that the Utes will work on being more efficient offensively, become more systematic and cut down on turnovers. He noted that they’ve had great meetings and are determined to work on deficiencies and weaknesses.

“I want to be in the upper third of our league and I think that’s a fair goal moving forward,” Krystkowiak said. “We want to be in a position, potentially, to earn a bye in the first round of the tournament.”

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