"We didn’t have two of our best players prior to non-conference, and you schedule to get wins — that’s what everybody does," he said. "I have absolutely no regrets, short of not winning a few of those games."
The two players, of course, were David Collette and Sedrick Barefield — Kyle Kuzma called adding the duo "the biggest stride" the Utes had made since the beginning of the season. Before they arrived, Utah lost its two toughest games (vs. Butler, at Xavier) while racking up wins against Coppin State, UC Riverside and Utah Valley, which all wound up being losing record teams in weak conferences.
Utah’s most costly loss of non-conference was twofold: By falling to San Francisco on opening night of the Diamond Head Classic, Utah was dropped down into the loser’s bracket and missed out on tougher opponents like Illinois State (RPI 36) and San Diego State (RPI 110) instead of Hawaii (RPI 293) and Stephen F. Austin (RPI 212). Krystkowiak rued that Kuzma’s twisted ankle on the first play of the first game helped cost Utah a shot to get some solid wins.
The result, combined with a lack of signature wins in Pac-12 play, is that Utah is not on any of the 107 bracket projections tracked by Bracket Matrix as of Monday morning. In the few projections Krystkowiak has seen, he noted that he hadn’t seen Utah on any "last four out" projections, suggesting that Utah must win the Pac-12 Tournament to go dancing.
Which is how the Utes view it anyway.
"It’s a lot that can be said, but if you win the Pac-12 championship, you’re in," Kuzma said. "That’s our goal right now."
Who will be there for Utah’s title push is up in the air. Krystkowiak said Monday morning that David Collette, who exited Saturday’s game against Stanford with a head injury, still had to undergo concussion protocol before he can begin practice. He had no update on freshman guard Devon Daniels, who missed his third straight game over the weekend on an indefinite suspension. Both average double-figure scoring for the team.
There’s also the matter of the bracket, which pits Utah in the same side of the field as Oregon — the same team that has knocked out the Utes from the conference tourney in three of the last four years. Utah has a nine-game losing streak against the Ducks, who are ranked No. 5 in the country. No. 3 UCLA and No. 7 Arizona, both teams that have beaten Utah this year, loom further on in the bracket.
And even before then, Utah is guaranteed to face either Cal or Oregon State, who both beat the Utes on the road this year (albeit by three combined points).
Krystkowiak said he "didn’t know" Oregon was on the same side of the bracket as Utah, and promised that some unexpected upsets might make Utah’s path to a championship a little murkier.
"Crazy things happen in March," he said. "Alls I know is we’re trying to get through the 2:30 game on Thursday. … Just trust me, something crazy is gonna happen. And I’m gonna say ‘I told you so.’"
If Utah can’t complete a Cinderella run this weekend, an NIT bid seems likely. The Utes last played in the NIT in 2014 and lost the first game. NYC Buckets, one of the few blogs that projects NIT bids, currently has Utah as a 2-seed in the postseason that runs at the same time as the NCAA Tournament.
When offered the suggestion that some fans were disappointed by Utah’s season this year, Krystkowiak seemed wounded: "From fan perspective, it’s a down year? Really?"
He highlighted Utah’s fourth-straight season of at least 20 wins or more (including Krystkowiak, only three Utah coaches have accomplished that). He also pointed to Utah’s fourth-place finish.
Furthermore, Krystkowiak opined, his team has gotten better. And he thinks the Pac-12 Tournament could be evidence of that.
"I thought Thursday night’s game was one of our best games of the season where we put it all together," he said. "I’m not here to give report cards for where we are. We’re looking forward completely. Hopefully it’s not a disappointment for fans, because if it is, we’ve got our hands full."