SALT LAKE CITY — Larry Krystkowiak has one observation, every year, when the Pac-12 basketball season rolls around. He says nobody ever picks the Utes as high as they finish.
Apparently there’s a reason for that.
Thursday night’s conference home opener was Exhibit A. On an awful-shooting, sleep-inducing night, the Utes lost 69-53 to Washington. So much for the Great Arizona Awakening. Utah is 1-2 in conference and showing no serious intentions.
It didn’t get beat, it got obliterated.
On a terrible year for Pac-12 men’s basketball, the Utes are off to an awkward start. Nobody in the spotty crowd seemed shocked. But it’s these kind of years the Utes should pounce. These kind of opportunities don’t happen every year.
On a national level, this season the Pac-12 is trudging along at foot speed. It was 2-3 against the ACC, 0-1 against the Big East, 0-7 against the Big Ten, 2-6 against the Big 12 and 3-9 against the SEC.
The Utes have done their part, losing to Minnesota and Northwestern, picked ninth and 12th, respectively, in the Big Ten. Yet they upset an Arizona State team that shocked No. 1 Kansas.
For three minutes on Thursday it appeared Donnie Tillman would give the Utes the boost they needed. He entered the game with 13:50 left in the first half. With 11 minutes left, he had eight points. Thirty-one minutes after that he had 10.
But he played better than many of his teammates. Utah had three turnovers in the first three minutes and six by the midway point of the first half. Just before halftime, ex-Ute Kyle Kuzma was picked out of the crowd and highlighted on the video board. He flashed the “U” sign.
Krystkowiak could have used him.
He could have used anyone who can hit the 3.
The Utes finished 3 for 17 from distance, 20 for 60 overall. They had the ball stolen nine times and suffered nine blocks. Seven of those blocks came in the first half. Practically everyone on the Utes took his time gathering and shooting. It was as slow as old-timey musket firing. By the time the second half began, every starter and one reserve had been stifled at least once.
So again, the Utes must make their case over time. NCAA Tournament time isn’t a likely option. With a 7-8 record, they’ve lost too many games for that. Utah will have to settle for being the Spam of the conference.
They get no respect.
Even beating Arizona State and losing a close one to Arizona isn’t a solid gold endorsement in the Conference of Chumpions, er, Champions. But in six of the last seven years, they have finished higher than their preseason ranking. Last year they far overshot projections, landing third instead of seventh.
This year they are picked to finish eighth.
That seemed optimistic Thursday.
In spite of coming into Thursday’s game with a six-game win streak over the Huskies, Utah knew better. Washington is now 11-4, on a four-game streak. But practically every nonconference game that mattered has gone to Husky opponents: Auburn, Minnesota, Gonzaga, Virginia Tech. They did pull off a four-point win over Texas A&M in November, a team that was picked 12th in the SEC.22 comments on this story
Meanwhile, the Utes are a conundrum as always. They have a few nice players but overall talent is lacking. And they don’t have a lot of evidence to prove they’ll do anything beyond having a few moments. It’s a team cobbled together after a slew of players graduated or transferred. That’s Utah, good enough to beat a few good teams, weak enough to lose to bad ones.
So taking on the conference’s No. 3 pick was a good way to gauge if the Utes have any juice of their own.
They’ll have to do what they usually do: surprise some people.
Problem is, the act isn’t really a surprise.