SALT LAKE CITY — There are no Delon Wrights, Jakob Poeltls or Kyle Kuzmas on this year’s Utes.
Not yet, anyway.
But they can dream.
And they can play-act.
For the time being, the Utes will make do with what they have. In Thursday’s 70-62 win over Washington, it clearly looked like they have something good a year or two ahead. True freshman Donnie Tillman and redshirt freshman Chris Seeley, for instance.
But the best look came from Justin Bibbins, the senior guard who in this game played far bigger than his 5-foot-8 stature. He had 10 rebounds, 20 points, five assists.
This is what the Utes are for 2018.
What they lack in raw talent and experience, they’ll have to make up for in attitude. That’s how Larry Krystkowiak did it as a player and how he likes it with his teams.
Disconcerting as it was for the Utes to lose four straight conference games, they showed a nice amount of tenaciousness Thursday. Having been out-rebounded in every previous Pac-12 game, they led Washington from start to finish, on the glass and on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, they showed far more aggressiveness than during their road trip to USC and UCLA last week, going to the free-throw line 30 times, compared to 19 in an 84-67 loss to USC.
In the first half they shot 14 free throws compared to just three for the Huskies.
Perimeter defense, which has been an issue this year, drastically improved in the early going. Utah held Washington to 2-for-18 shooting from outside the arc.
If nothing else, Krystkowiak’s teams seem to be listening to him. Often when things go south, teams tune out their coach. But for the moment they’re still paying attention, still hoping for a second-half rally.
Last year Utah started conference play 5-2, instead of 2-4, ending with an 11-7 record. That got them into fourth place in the conference, but not into the NCAA Tournament.
While Washington was a nice win, it wasn’t a landmark one. Two teams in the Pac-12 have just one loss.
But for anyone who saw Krystkowiak as a college and NBA player, it’s not hard to envision his teams persisting, regardless. He liked to talk about putting his nose where it didn’t belong, i.e. in someone else’s space.
Thursday they invaded Washington’s.
Six of their first-half buckets were in close, rather than settling for attempts from the Student Union.
Part of Utah’s newfound toughness was the availability of bruising freshman Tillman, who has battled injuries this year. Thursday was just his second start of the season. He made the Utes approximately twice as physical. Seeley, too, made his case. They had 14 and six points, respectively. Tillman collected eight rebounds, Seeley five.
In the final 1½ minutes, Tillman secured two offensive rebounds and made a pair of free throws, after Washington had pulled within four points.
If the Utes are to get back into a serious place in the conference, it will have to be on pure doggedness. There’s no obvious NBA-bound talent — at least not yet — to make up the difference.
Even with a 3-4 conference record, 11-7 overall, Utah’s NCAA Tournament chances are sketchy. They would have to win about half their remaining games against teams ahead of them, plus all the games against teams behind them, to finish above .500 in conference.
Thursday’s game reversed a troublesome slide for the Utes. They rank 12th in offensive rebounding and offensive rebounding defense, 11th in scoring margin, 3-point field goal percentage defense, rebound margin, defensive rebounding and defensive rebounding percentage, 10th in steals and turnover margin, and eighth in scoring offense, scoring defense, field goal defense and blocked shots.
They’re a walking, talking budget deficit.
The chance to turn things around after four straight losses presented itself at the Huntsman Center. Washington was a good place to start. It’s a respectable team, at 3-3 and 13-6, having defeated USC and Kansas on the road.
Not much can be surmised from Thursday’s game. Except that Utah hasn’t yet thrown in the towel. It’s a start.