SALT LAKE CITY — It was dead quiet for a moment. Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak — tie off, collar open — scanned the box score and slowly picked lint off a suit coat he had lain on the table.
Isn't that what it has come down to now? Picking off the lint?
The Utes have done a nice job with the dandruff, the dog hairs and all the other stuff that messes up a suit. Now it's a matter of polishing details: making their shots.
Thursday at the Huntsman Center, the Utes missed their last six attempts — three at the rim — in a 57-53 loss to UCLA. Some might chalk it up to nerves, but the Utes didn't seem especially nervous down the stretch. It wasn't execution, either. Krystkowiak said he was happy with the overall shot selection.
So exactly why is the rim still closed for business whenever the Utes get down to the final seconds?
"Basketball is a funny game," Krystkowiak said. "It's a confidence deal. I've got all the confidence in the world in them."
In the final two minutes they were close enough to sneeze the ball into the hoop once or twice. It never happened. Trailing 55-53, they missed a layup, a tip and a 3-pointer. Glen Dean missed another 3-pointer with 42 seconds to go and after a Bruin score, fell short on another layup. By then it was too late, but it did manage to accentuate the problem: This wasn't their first late foul-up.
Three times in the last three games they had shots in the closing seconds to tie or win, only to miss.
Last week against Arizona State the Utes missed four shots in the final 12 seconds. Two nights later they missed two at the end that could have defeated Arizona. Now this.
"We'll make 'em. We're going to make 'em at some point," Krystkowiak said.
Before a spate of turnovers in the first half, the Utes looked just fine. They stayed close, but suddenly the Bruin lead was 13. That might have had something to do with the Bruins not really being warmed up. The snowstorm and ensuing traffic problems caused them to arrive just over an hour prior to tipoff.
The storm didn't just make the Bruins late. It made everyone late.
There's little question the Utah basketball program is improving quickly. In harsh reality, an 8-7 record, 0-3 in conference, doesn't say too much except that they've moved from ignominy to mediocrity.
Still, improvement can happen fairly quickly. BYU was 1-25 in 1997 but followed with 9- and 12-win seasons, then went 22-11 and played in the NIT. The following season the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament. But that was nothing compared to the 1982-83 Utah State Aggies, who went from 4-23 to 20-9 and gained an NCAA Tournament berth — in one season.
It has been typically two-steps-ahead, one-step-back season for Utah. It beat Boise State — and several no-names — but the real progress might be in the losses. There have been no blowouts. Last year those were mandatory. Utah's seven losses have been by a combined 26 points.
"I'd rather have 20-point leads, but that's not happening," Krystkowiak said. "Again, we're not that far away."
The problem hasn't been effort. Utah is seventh nationally in opponent field goal percentage (35.4 percent) after being 321st (of 347) last season.
But the Utes can't make shots — at least not the gut-wrenching ones. A basket down the stretch could have downed both Arizona teams, BYU and UCLA.
Thursday's game was as much symbolic as it was literal in terms of Utah's progress. UCLA is unranked. But still, it's the Bruins. They show up in Utah, oh, every 85 years or so. Last time they met, a year ago in Los Angeles, the Bruins won by 27. Last time they met in Salt Lake was 1928.
The peach basket was barely off the wall.
Now it's a new era. UCLA will be playing regularly in Salt Lake. Meanwhile, midway through the season, one thing seems obvious for the Utes: It's not in their hearts, but their heads.
You might even say it's on their jackets.
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