Your number one team goes down in smoke, it doesn’t do a whole lot to affect the Big Ten. Unfortunately, with some of the parity, my fear is it’s going to affect our conference a little bit more negatively. —Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak
SALT LAKE CITY — For several minutes, Larry Krystkowiak sat at the podium with his eyes closed, one hand pressed to his temple. Back-to-back conference losses will trigger that.
They also trigger another thing: widespread disregard.
The calendar has turned, but just as in football, the Pac-12 is sabotaging itself, and don’t think the NCAA selection committee isn’t watching. No western team made the college football playoffs, thanks largely to the league’s self-destruction. No team went undefeated in conference and only one had a single loss.
In basketball, it’s the same story. The Pac-12 is already starting to look like a four- or three-bid league.
Sunday at the Huntsman Center, the Utes lost to Arizona State in a game that wasn’t decided until Justin Bibbins’ 3-pointer rattled out with 3.4 seconds remaining.
“There’s no feeling like it in the world when it goes in, and there’s no feeling like it in the world when it bounces out,” Krystkowiak said.
The miss guaranteed a sweep for the week, with the Arizona schools doing the housecleaning.
So here the Utes sit, back at the start line. They swept last week’s games at Oregon and Oregon State and have now lost two at home — a basic reset. While the losses damaged the Utes’ aspirations, the bigger issue is that they also damaged those of the conference. Too many teams losing too many league games leaves the Pac-12 begging for NCAA Tournament invitations.
This isn’t news to Krystkowiak.
“I just think when you look at a situation — and this is me; I’m not going to win a bunch of awards for popularity with the comments — but certain teams in the East lose a game against a lesser opponent and it’s really not that significant, because ‘the league is just so tough,’” Krystkowiak said. “And here in the West, we’ve got certain opponents that are really respectable that have kicked the snot out of a lot of those teams in the East, but yet when a Colorado beats an Arizona, for some reason that diminishes our league, because one of our leaders in our conference takes a loss against a team that they consider subpar. Which is crazy. If you were out here you’d know winning in Colorado is no easy task.”
The problem of cannibalization isn’t limited to the West, but no conference is doing a better job against itself. The ACC has three teams undefeated in conference play, the Big 12 two, the Big East one, the Big Ten two, the SEC two. The Pac-12 already has no undefeated teams.
As Krystkowiak points out, NCAA invitations are hard to find west of the Mississippi. Arizona, the league’s preseason pick, has already lost to Colorado. Arizona State won its first 12 games and reached No. 3 in the polls, before losing to Arizona and Colorado. UCLA has dropped a game to Stanford. Oregon already has two losses.
“Your number one team goes down in smoke, it doesn’t do a whole lot to affect the Big Ten,” Krystkowiak said. “Unfortunately, with some of the parity, my fear is it’s going to affect our conference a little bit more negatively.”
The Utes began dreadfully against ASU. Their rebounding problems — the cause of their loss to Arizona —were as obvious as Krystkowiak’s red plaid sport coat. (Krystkowiak also lost with a solid red jacket on Thursday; time to get himself a nice tan blazer.)
ASU had the Utes doubled in rebounds through most of the first half.
“We need a couple of bigger dudes,” Krystkowiak said after the Arizona game. But Utah was bigger than ASU, which has no one taller than 6-foot-8 in the starting lineup.
Utah finished the game trailing 32-25 in rebounds.
Gradually the Utes cut into ASU’s early 11-point lead. By halftime they had gained a 36-35 lead. After that, nothing changed.
A stare down to the finish.
A headache in the locker room.
Outside the interview room, someone could be heard shouting curses.
“I don’t recognize that voice,” Krystkowiak wryly noted. “Maybe one of our coaches.”
It might have been coming all the way from the league office.