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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak talks with his players during a timeout as Utah and Colorado play in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s an uphill drive on a steep mountain road, and Larry Krystkowiak is having a white-knuckle ride. Even for someone who grew up in the heart of mountain country, this is dangerous work. One more hairpin turn and he could hurtle into space.

But the Montana native has managed to survive. It’s been that way in his eight seasons as the Utes’ coach. Survival for the Utes, though, isn’t necessarily enough. He faces an increasingly critical fan base, largely because he has been listed the country’s eighth highest-paid college basketball coach, but has taken his team to the NCAA Tournament just twice in seven years. It’s a near-certainty the Utes will miss this year, for the fourth consecutive season.

Krystkowiak has consistently defied the experts, who routinely pick his team near the bottom of the conference in preseason polls. Every year except one he has exceeded the media’s expectations. But Ute fan expectations are an entirely different matter.

This is how close Krystkowiak is to the edge of the cliff: Parker Van Dyke landed a desperation 3 on Saturday to give the Utes a 93-92 win over UCLA. Otherwise, it would have been a fifth conference loss, dropping them to 12-11 overall. Instead, they are an unfathomably good 5-1 in conference road games.

In spite of that showy number, the Utes are just 2-3 at home. With four of their final seven games at the Huntsman Center, they’ll need their homecourt swag if they want a high seed in the conference tournament.

Marcio Jose Sanchez
Utah guard Parker Van Dyke, second from right, is mobbed by teammates after making a three-point basket to win an NCAA college basketball game against UCLA, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

That Utah is tied for second place says as much about the Pac-12 as anything. This year the conference is a likely one-bid league. For his part, Krystkowiak rolls along, never getting too high or too low. That’s how he lasted 11 years in the NBA on knees as wobbly as a toddler’s. In the last five years his teams have finished eighth, second, second, fourth and third after being picked ninth, second, third, eighth and seventh.

This year they were picked eighth, but they’re two games above that level.

Blessed with three first-round NBA draft picks in the last four years, the Ute coach has only reached the Sweet 16 once and made the NCAA tourney one other time. But he has a remarkable knack for dangling a carrot to fans. Bland as the Utes have looked this season — no wins against top-50 RPI teams — they have decent talent developing. Freshmen Timmy Allen, Both Gach, Riley Battin and sophomore Donnie Tillman are good enough to play on any other conference team.

Burned by weak non-conference schedules in past years, the Utes booked games against Minnesota, Northwestern, Kentucky and Nevada this year. None was a win. The Utes are ranked No. 106 according to RealTime RPI. That’s below BYU (75), Utah Valley (80) and Utah State (50).

Time for Krystkowiak to Kryst-go-wiak?

That depends on what are realistic expectations for Utah.

Even in the increasingly irrelevant Pac-12, the Utes have failed to seize the opportunity. But buying out Krystkowiak’s contract seems an unlikely proposition. Former athletic director Chris Hill inked him to a deal that runs through 2022-23. Going into this season, the school was on the hook for a $15 million buyout.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and assistant head coach Tommy Connor cheer for Utes center Jayce Johnson after a good play as Utah and Colorado play in the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.

Utah likely doesn’t have the money to do that.

Exorbitant salary aside, here’s a reality: Since when was Utah good enough to fire a second- or third-place coach?

That’s the conundrum of Krystkowiak.

Rabid fans say Utah is underperforming, and based on Krystko’s kingly salary, it’s true. But based on recruitable talent, he’s better than many believe. The Pac-12 had more players (69) on opening-day NBA rosters this year than any other conference except the ACC (82), and more than twice that of the highly rated Big East (31). Yet the Utes consistently finish in the top third of the league standings.

Here’s an even bigger reality check: On opening day, Utah had three players on NBA rosters. Only Washington State, Arizona State and Oregon State had fewer. Meanwhile, UCLA — poor, underachieving UCLA — had 17 NBA players.

Why isn’t Utah getting more NBA-level players? Same reason Washington State and Oregon State aren’t getting them.

Location, location, location.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 9, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Yet Krystkowiak has been respectable in recruiting. Rick Majerus placed six players in the NBA draft in 15 seasons, not counting Andrew Bogut, a player Majerus recruited but didn’t usher into the NBA. Krystkowiak has coached three NBA players in seven seasons.

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Krystkowiak has had numerous players transfer out of his program. In one span he lost nine players in 1½ years. But that’s not as unusual as it seems. Verbalcommits.com says 873 players transferred nationwide last summer. The NCAA said in a 2018 report that 13 percent of men’s basketball players at four-year colleges transfer to another school.

Should Krystkowiak be fired if he misses the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year? Not if his team stays respectable in the standings. Utah’s still not a good enough program to fire coaches who always do better than predicted. Especially when they owe him, well, a mountain of money.