SALT LAKE CITY — You might have noticed that scintillating opening game at the Huntsman Center the other night when Utah beat the Geoducks of Evergreen State by 84 points. That’s right, 84 points. It was the largest margin of victory in Ute history, and the 128 points Utah scored just missed the school's all-time record of 132 set back in the 1960s.
What, was West High not available that night?
A week later, the Utes played UC Davis, which Larry Krystkowiak called “a heck of a team’’ prior to the game. The Utes hardly broke a sweat and won by just 34 points.
This week, Ute fans can see Grand Canyon, Lamar and Savannah State in a three-day mini-tournament. Later in the preseason, the Utes will play Idaho State, Texas State and St. Katherine College. You say you’ve never heard of St. Katherine College? Perhaps that’s because the liberal arts school is another NAIA program like Evergreen State and is playing its first year as a basketball program.
“Holy smokes, even Majerus never had a schedule like this,’’ one longtime Ute fan commented to me recently.
Former Ute coach Rick Majerus was famous for some of the teams he used to bring to the Huntsman Center, including the likes of Montana Tech, Azusa Pacific and everyone’s favorite, Cardinal Stritch. However, he also brought in major schools like Wake Forest, Texas and Alabama to spice up the nonconference schedule.
This year the Utes do play a few teams you’ve heard of such as Ball State, Fresno State, Boise State and BYU. Once January starts, they’ll play Pac-12 schools the rest of the way (you can argue that Majerus never played UCLA and Arizona at home in the same season, which the Utes do now).
Majerus used to justify the Cardinal Stritches on his annual schedules, and Krystkowiak is sensitive about his nonconference slate as he brings the Ute program out of the doldrums.
“I get that fans talk about a weak schedule and this and that, but when you’re a coach, there’s no such thing as a weak schedule,’’ he said. “We’ve got our hands full. We’ve got Fresno; we’ve got Boise; we’ve got BYU, and there’s going to be a lot of different challenges of styles in our tournament before Thanksgiving.’’
Utah athletics director Chris Hill acknowledges that he’s heard from Ute fans about the schedule not being very good, but he supports Krystkowiak in scheduling this year’s weak slate of teams and says it’s OK considering the state of the program in recent years.
“It’s a certain stage of development of our program where we want challenges,’’ he says. “But we don’t want to put ourselves in a position with a team that is young and we think is starting to see some good things happen and not build some confidence.’’
Hill also points out that Utah hasn’t raised prices in seven years and that the Utes don’t charge more with this year’s 20-game home schedule than with the usual 17- or 18-game home schedule. And he promises, “It will get better.’’
I’m actually OK with the Utes having a watered-down schedule this year as they continue their upward climb toward respectability. However, my beef is that they don’t play more games against local schools.
Of their dozen nonleague games, only one is against a school from Utah, the Dec. 14 home game against BYU. The Utes have taken the last couple of years off against Utah State, but will resume the rivalry next year.
But what about Weber State, Southern Utah and Utah Valley, who are all Division I programs? What about Dixie State, a Division II school, or Westminster, an NAIA school? I know most of these schools would love to play Utah, even if they always have to come to Salt Lake City to play every year.
Instead of Idaho State from the Big Sky, play Weber State. Instead of Fresno State from the Mountain West Conference, play Utah State. Instead of Grand Canyon from the WAC, play Utah Valley. Instead of St. Katherine from the NAIA, play Dixie State.
When I asked Hill about it, he paused a second before saying, “That’s probably something we should look at.’’
“I wouldn’t be opposed to that," Krystkowiak said, referring to more in-state games.
So why doesn’t Utah play these in-state schools?
It basically comes down to being afraid to lose. It’s one thing to lose to Sacramento State at home, as the Utes did last year, but another if it’s another Big Sky school like Weber or SUU. Nobody remembers Utah losing to Sac State, but they’d hear about it for a long time if they lost at home to SUU.
However, the Utah program is good enough that it shouldn’t worry about losing to local teams (don’t think about the fact that Dixie State upset UNLV already this year). Sure the Utes could still lose to Utah State or Weber State, but they took that risk for three decades before pausing those series a couple of years ago.
The Utes don’t have to schedule Kentucky or Kansas or Duke. But at the very least, they should schedule some local teams with local players at the Huntsman Center rather than some outfit called the Geoducks or a team playing basketball for the first year ever.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company