SALT LAKE CITY — The story isn’t completely written on the Ute basketball season, but the narrative is familiar.
Utah might make the NCAA Tournament, but you can skip to the end of the novel, i.e. the part where Arizona wins the day.
At the same time, the Utes showed in a 94-82 loss to the No. 14 Wildcats that they’re more than fiction. The score was tied with 3:45 to go, but the Wildcats took the lead for good 23 seconds later.
“We didn’t fail,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I mean, we didn’t win the game. I’m not going to say we’re not a real team. If it’s a true test, then we didn’t win the game, does that mean we’re not a real team?”
No, just a limited one.
In some ways, the outcome means little in the big picture. Utah was never supposed to win this one. Strange things happen, but only on occasion.
The rest of the time the best players win.
“Hard-fought game. Good crowd, nasty crowd,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “It’s something you have to be able to deal with if you’re us.”
“Us” being a team that this year and most others has the personnel to reach the Final Four.
Now Utah moves on to play Sunday at the Huntsman Center against Arizona State, ranked No. 4 nationally. For the moment, the Utes are a team that is better than it’s No. 7 placement in the Pac-12’s preseason poll.
Things hardly could have started worse for the Utes. They couldn’t find the iron with a metal detector. In the first half, the point spread stretched to 17. Utah was shooting half as accurately as the Wildcats, which explains why it had half the points. The Utes improved their shooting, but Arizona’s 7-foot duo of Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic finished the game with as many combined rebounds as the entire Utah team.
Overall the Utes were out-rebounded 46-23.
“We need a couple of bigger dudes,” Krystkowiak said. “They beat us at their strength.”
Disregarding the dreadful shooting start, Utah played the Wildcats competitively. And disregarding the wind, that Nor'easter blizzard of ’58 was a day at the beach.
Still, the Utes made their point. Sedrick Barefield scored nine points in one stretch during the second half, as Utah pulled to within a two-point deficit with a dozen minutes remaining.
While the Utes haven’t exactly impressed against Arizona since joining the Pac-12, historically it has been a fine matchup. Utah now has a 1-11 record against the Wildcats since 2011. But Arizona only leads the all-time series 32-29. Back in the rough-and-tumble WAC days, the Utes more than held their own.
But nowadays there’s no pretending who is supposed to win. The Wildcats are on a nine-game win streak. Utah, on the other hand, has taken the Forrest Gump approach: Life has been a box of chocolates. Nothing this year was more surprising than its sweep in Oregon. The Ducks were picked to finish fourth in the conference, while Oregon State was picked eighth.
Utah isn’t imposing, but at the same time, predicting where it will go this year is as tricky as an S-curve. It’s a decent college team, but other than freshman Donnie Tillman, the Utes probably lack NBA-bound talent.
Then there’s Arizona, picked (surprise!) to win the Pac-12 championship. It has 11 alumni playing in the NBA. Other teams sometimes get pro prospects. Arizona has had 41 players drafted in 30 years.
But after their success in Oregon, the Utes couldn’t help but feel optimistic. They had plenty of momentum. Two road wins to precede a home game against Arizona?
They’ll take that.
In the end, their story ran out of pages.
Said Krystkowiak: “I’m not into moral victories.”
But he couldn’t get into moral judgments, either.
The Utes are proving respectable in spite of their warts.