SALT LAKE CITY — For a coach that endured all kinds of pain during his playing days, Larry Krystkowiak has looked uncharacteristically vulnerable lately. A wrong turn at Arizona State wrenched his back, forcing him to duck-walk to the bench in small steps. He sat gripping his thighs and wincing the rest of the way.
Afterward, he exited the arena in a wheelchair.
These things happen when you spend your playing career bracing the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Rick Mahorn and Shaquille O’Neal.
But Krystkowiak was moving again on Thursday. Funny how that works. Beat a ranked team and the rest is tolerable. Losing could have been a real pain in the, er, back.
Instead, the Utes are guarding their arena with panache. Their 86-64 win over 25th-ranked USC moved them to 12-4 overall, but more importantly, 3-1 in conference.
Saturday the conference schedule continues with No. 4 UCLA in town, which is why Thursday’s game mattered so much. Utah’s margin for error this year is parchment-thin. This was a good way for Krystkowiak to see if there’s gas in the tank.
“I had a great vibe just looking around in Huntsman (Center) tonight,” Kyrstkowiak said. “We got some weather and I’m not sure I’d have come to the game if I didn’t have to.”
What began as a concern bloomed into dilemma as the Utes fell behind 10-0. But the score wasn’t as disconcerting as the method. They started out like a house on fire — in a bad way.
They were going down in flames.
In the first four minutes, Utah missed three layups, had two turnovers, and got outrebounded 8-1.
Just as quickly, the Utes began silly-slapping the Trojans. Kyle Kuzma hit a 3 and followed with a spinning jump-hook that fell. Devon Daniels stole a pass and scored. David Collette’s midrange attempt found eyes. A 10-point deficit turned into a 15-point lead, thanks to nine straight field goals.
Krystkowiak covered the sidelines like a man walking on eggshells. In a sense he was already doing that, considering Utah’s narrow margin for error. He dropped a water bottle and gingerly leaned out to snatch it up. He waved his arms and jabbed his finger, but the range of motion wasn’t there.
Still, he didn’t mind. Everything was going Utah’s way. Even Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate and noted BYU graduate, showed up.
That’s a vibe of its own.
The second half didn’t change a thing. Utah kept making 3s — 8 of 13 at one point — and the lead got to 21 with 10 minutes left.
Considering Utah’s questionable RPI rating, (116), back-to-back home losses could have dealt a massive blow to its tournament hopes. Scheduling aside, the Utes emerged from the preseason drawing praise from opponents. Arizona coach Sean Miller rates them one of the four best teams in the conference.
At the same time, a non-conference slate seemingly arranged by a softhearted cleric has endangered Utah’s long-range dreams. When Stephen F. Austin and Utah Valley are important wins, there’s a problem. Beating Cal-Riverside and Prairie View — are those places or candle scents? — doesn’t help.
So every home game seems a “must-win.”
“Whenever you start talking about 'must-do' something, crazy things can happen,” Krystkowiak said.
Challenges, challenges. Aside from on-court play, there are other issues to consider. For instance, will Krystkowiak and his tricky back end up on the injured list? Asked after the game how it was feeling, he said, “Not so hot old age.”
But that was just physically. Mentally, he could hardly have been better. His team is making a run at home-court perfection. Utah has won 25 of its last 29 conference games at home, dating to 2013-14. It is 59-5 overall at home since then and 9-1 on the year. That’s a good place to start. With RPI worries, finishing high in the conference or winning the Pac-12 tourney is the only way the Utes can make the NCAA field this year.
Missing out on the postseason, though, would be a kind of pain for Krystkowiak that’s hard to fix.