It was a heck of a lot of fun. I think it was a successful year. Our guys got better. We ended up playing late into March, which is always a goal. —Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said he doesn’t want to deal in extremes. Krystkowiak doesn’t think the Utes arrived by reaching the NIT championship game, nor does he feel like missing the NCAA Tournament was a failure.
“It’s not about a destination. It’s about the journey,” Krystkowiak said. “We had a heck of a time, a heck of a run.” The Utes wound up with a 23-12 record and played their final two games at Madison Square Garden.
“Comparatively speaking, with where it can be and where we ended up, I’m perfectly fine with it. You can’t beat yourself up and you can’t overly celebrate,” Krystkowiak said. “We dug the situation that we were in with our own shovel and had some good wins and missed out on some other ones. But going down the stretch, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Before dropping an 82-66 decision to Penn State in the NIT finals, Utah reeled off four straight wins in the tournament. The victories included a 67-58 overtime decision at Saint Mary’s.
“It was a heck of a lot of fun. I think it was a successful year,” Krystkowiak said. “Our guys got better. We ended up playing late into March, which is always a goal.”
Although the Utes were ousted by Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, they won six of their final seven games in the regular season to earn the No. 3 seed — four spots higher than projected in the conference’s preseason poll.
“You always want to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s a primary goal for our program. It doesn’t always happen. It can’t always happen.”
Krystkowiak added that the Utes came to find out that “quadrant one” wins were huge. The overall strength of the Pac-12, he continued, prevented the Utes from getting some of those. Opportunities to defeat Arizona came up just short.
“So that’s the result, you don’t make the NCAA Tournament,” Krystkowiak said. “You need to be ready to pound some of those opportunities when they come and put yourself in that position.”
Even so, Krystkowiak wonders if Arizona’s 0-3 showing at a preseason tournament put the Pac-12 in a bad light for good. Then again, he’s unsure why Arizona State’s struggles after a 14-0 non-conference mark weren’t valued as a strength for the league. Krystkowiak also questions if the selection committee overlooked league power USC.
All said, Krystkowiak noted that he wasn’t in the mood to discuss people’s perceptions. No tangents. Instead, Krystkowiak is determined to direct his energy at the things he can control.
“We improved as the year went along. Our guys got better,” he said. “We were playing well at the right time of the year.”
The key? Defense.
“If you commit to what you are doing and you do a decent job of it, you can have some fun,” Krystkowiak said. “So it was fun. But beyond that, it was successful as well.”
The Utes led the Pac-12 in field goal defense (41.9 percent) and scoring defense (68.5 ppg).
“We did some good things,” said Krystkowiak, who added that some of Utah’s wins were the direct result of being dialed in on defense. He explained that the Utes did it the “old-fashioned way” without a shot blocker.
Other areas of success were 3-point shooting and a low number of foul calls. Senior guard Justin Bibbins, a graduate transfer from Long Beach State, played well above his 5-foot-8 frame and earned first team all-conference honors. He averaged a team-high 14.8 points per game.
Senior forward David Collette (12.3 ppg) was a second team All-Pac-12 selection. Utah’s scoring leaders also included junior guard Sedrick Barefield (12 ppg), senior forward Tyler Rawson (10.9 ppg) and freshman forward Donnie Tillman (7.8 ppg).
Barefield, Tillman, sophomore center Jayce Johnson, junior guard Parker Van Dyke and sophomore guard Kolbe Caldwell represent the returning corps for the Utes. They’re the most experienced players in the program with the graduation departures of Bibbins, Collette, Rawson and Gabe Bealer. Redshirt freshman forward Chris Seeley has announced plans to transfer.
Krystkowiak acknowledged that each year is a different story.
“I love the guys that we have coming back,” he said. “I’m not quite ready to talk about the future, but I like our incoming recruiting class.”
The Utes have signed six players to national letters of intent. The newcomers include Timmy Allen (6-6, guard-forward, Red Mountain HS, Arizona; Riley Battin (6-9, forward, Oak Park HS, California); Naseem Gaskin (6-3, guard, Bishop O’Dowd HS, California); Charles Jones, Jr. (6-2, guard, College of Southern Idaho); Lahat Thioune (6-10, forward Florida Prep, Florida) and Idaho State graduate transfer Novak Topalovic (7-0, center/forward).