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.”
Krystkowiak added that he wants to take it to the next level with his team.
There’s certainly a solid foundation in place. For the first time since Krystkowiak took over the program in 2011-12, no major roster renovations are in the works. Renan Lenz was the only senior on scholarship. Top returnees include Delon Wright, Jordan Loveridge, Dallin Bachynski, Brandon Taylor, Dakarai Tucker, Jeremy Olsen and Princeton Onwas.
Wright, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, became the first Utah player to earn first-team all-conference honors since the Utes joined the Pac-12.
“It’s really difficult for a junior college player to come in and it didn’t take Delon long to kind of find his niche and perform at a high level,” Krystkowiak said.
Wright opted to return for his senior season instead of turning pro and Krystkowiak said the player and team have similar goals for improvement that will make everyone better next season.
The Utes also have several promising newcomers joining the mix next season, including forward Brekkott Chapman, forward Kyle Kuzma, forward Chris Reyes and guard Isaiah Wright.
“We’ve got a great group of kids coming to join us. But it’s even more clear now that it’s going to be on them to get brought up to speed,” Krystkowiak said. “Because there’s a lot of players that can play that are here and you’re going to have to earn a spot if you want to come in and play because we’ve got some guys that are seasoned and been through some of it.”
Final record: 21-12/9-9
Statistical leaders: Delon Wright, 15.5 ppg, 5.2 apg), Jordan Loveridge (7 rpg)
Key returners: Wright, Loveridge, Brandon Taylor, Dallin Bachynski, Dakarai Tucker, Jeremy Olsen, Princeton Onwas
Key newcomers: PF Brekkott Chapman, SF Kyle Kuzma, PF Chris Reyes, PG Isaiah Wright
Key losses for 2014-15 season: C-F Renan Lenz
Krystkowiak says: “We’re at the point now where we want to be a part of the NCAA tournament. For us to do that, it’s going to take improvement by everybody.”