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Brad Rock: It's not there, but Utah program is heading north

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 7:15 p.m. MDT

Swoop gets Ute fans riled up at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Utah beat Oregon 72-62 in a men's basketball game. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Swoop gets Ute fans riled up at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Utah beat Oregon 72-62 in a men's basketball game. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY —

The Utes said it wasn’t a gigantic deal, just one game, but their actions spoke otherwise. They had defeated No. 19-ranked Oregon in their last home game of the season, and several players huddled near the 3-point arc.

Senior Jason Washburn pumped his arm, threw the ball high toward the scoreboard and blew kisses to the crowd.

OK, maybe Saturday’s 72-62 win felt bigger than they were admitting. Shhhh. Don’t tell a soul. They have at least one game remaining, next week in the Pac-12 tournament. But in that first breathless moment, when the threat had abated, they let their emotions take them. The Huntsman Center wasn’t full, though it actually sounded that way. How long has it been? Eons, it seems, since Utah fans could end a week feeling anything but a sinking grayness. This, though, gave rise to the suspicion something is stirring on the hill.

And it’s not just the construction cranes, parked down the street.

“We said we loved each other, but that it’s not over yet. We’re not going to celebrate it like it’s our last game, or like we just won the championship,” senior Cedric Martin said of the on-court gathering. “We didn’t really do anything; it was just one game of basketball.”

Well, maybe it was a little bigger than that.

“We took down a giant, took down a top-25 team,” Washburn said, fighting back tears. “And it couldn’t have been done in any more spectacular fashion.”

It’s not like the Utes’ 13-17 record represents a complete turnaround, but it’s a repectable start. All of which raises the question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to listen, does it make a sound? And if the Utes beat the first-place team in the Pac-12, at the end of another losing season, will the word get out?

So it goes when you’re trying to separate from the bottom of the heap. In winning eight Pac-12 games in the last two years, they have really only shown what everyone knew before Utah ever joined the league: It can occasionally beat big-conference teams.

Even that has been a slow grind. On one hand, coach Larry Krystkowiak’s program is undeniably improving. Utah lost five games by four or fewer points, including a pair of winnable ones to nationally ranked Arizona and a four-pointer to UCLA. It also threatened to beat rival BYU — something that hasn’t happened routinely since the Big Guy in the Sky, Rick Majerus, was around.

On the watch-ability meter, the Utes haven’t often ranked high until lately. They went into Saturday’s game with the most turnovers in the conference and in rebounding and scoring they rank 10th and 12th, respectively.

Losses to Sacramento State and Cal Northridge early in the year were inexcusable.

Jim Boylen never won fewer than 13 games, and was fired for it.

Yet it would be unfair and perhaps even unwise to entirely write off the changes at Utah. The Utes led Saturday’s game from start to finish, building the lead to 17 and weathering a run that cut it to six. These Utes actually seem interested in playing, going fast and hard. That hasn’t always been the case. In an effort to rebuild the program, Krystkowiak used the biggest selling point he could — immediate playing time. A better-than-expected senior season from Washburn, combined with a surprisingly feisty complement of freshmen, gave them what is already a seven-game improvement. More importantly, they increased their conference wins to five.

Had they won a few of the aforementioned close ones, Utah’s record would have been downright respectable.

Not NCAA-worthy, but still.

So where are the Utes, really?

They’re heading north, not south. At a discernable pace.

“I feel we’re moving into the next stage,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but there’s no loser talk about what we experienced last year; I think that’s important for where we are now. I think you’d be crazy to say we’re not quite a bit better.”

Up in the stands, screaming like it was a championship, Utah fans couldn’t have agreed more.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: therockmonster

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