In a brief moment of defensive perfection, before the Utes have a chance to make a mistake, Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye takes a pass in the high post. The 7-foot Senegal native hands the ball off and pushes his way closer to the basket, taking the Utes’ Jason Washburn with him.
Suddenly, N’Diaye turns, sticks his backside into Washburn, swallows another pass and gently plunks in a five-foot hook shot that puts the Huskies up 2-0.
“Hmm,” says Larry Krystkowiak. The first-year Utah coach pauses the footage on his laptop computer, backs it up and again watches the play that came 15 seconds into the Huskies’ 57-53 win on Jan. 7.
“Watch Washburn’s hands,” Krystkowiak says. “There’s no shot contest at all.”
He reaches down to the chart he keeps next to the computer, finds Washburn’s name and follows the row to the column labeled “Post Defense.” He makes a mark.
The coach arrived in Salt Lake City last spring promising his team would be known for its defense and intensity. This is how he evaluates those intangibles: 20 minutes before 7 a.m., sitting elbows-to-knees on a Starbucks sofa on Jan. 8, the morning after a game. While it’s easy enough to look at the 5-14 Utes, who play at UCLA on Thursday, and label them as “bad,” this is where Krystkowiak hunts for clues of progress.
Having learned the ratings system from Avery Johnson, his former boss with the New Jersey Nets, Krystkowiak turns each error into data he tracks throughout the season.
Each player receives what amounts to a report card from every game. The most mistakes by one player in a game was 121/2. “Not many guys are up there around eight or nine,” Washburn said, “so when you get higher than about six you really start to say, ‘I really messed up this game, and I let my team down.’ ”
Against the Huskies, the high mark was Washburn’s 61/2.
The Utes had their most impressive win of the season Saturday, a 64-43 romp against Arizona State, after which Krystkowiak called Utah’s defense “pretty darn good.”
After watching the film and grading his players, though, Krystkowiak said: “It wasn’t dazzling. There were like three straight possessions where we had some pretty major breakdowns and they missed. So sometimes its fools’ gold to think you’re doing a great job defending.”
And that, Krystkowiak said, is the point of the system, “to give you a true sense for how you’re doing, not whether or not you dodged a bullet.”
Statistically, the Utes are one of the worst defensive teams in the Pac-12, ranking last in field goal defense, steals and scoring margin.
But Krystkowiak’s data goes deeper.
“To me it’s a real important way of placing ownership on defense that a lot of times slips through the cracks,” he says.
At the 18:40 mark against Washington, Cedric Martin forces Terrence Ross to take a tough shot, but the Huskies get the offensive rebound and subsequently score.
“Ced doesn’t block out,” Krystkowiak says signaling at the screen. “He’s thinking transition. It was the exact difference. It cost us.”
He makes a mark under “Block Out.”
“It’s just hard knowing that I played selfish ‘D’ that game,” said Martin, who received five marks. “I wasn’t boxing out, I wasn’t help side. I was hugging a man that I shouldn’t have been that close to.”
And while there is no way to earn back a lost point, Krystkowiak is watching for the defensive bright spots as well. Like a flying transition block by Dijon Farr and a mid-air box-out by 5-foot-10 Kareem Storey against the much taller Ross that Krystkowiak calls “awesome.”
These are small victories that Krystkowiak clings to in a season without many big ones.
As the first half against Washington winds down, Utah’s Chris Hines gets caught up in a screen while chasing Wilcox, sparking a chain of defensive decisions that make Krystkowiak smile.
Lumbering forward Javon Dawson switches on to Wilcox, but bites on a pump fake, leaving his feet. The Washington guard slips past. Blake Wilkinson steps into Wilcox’s way to disrupt his control of the ball. On the baseline, Martin slides over to cause a collision that ends the scoring threat. The Huskies’ lead remains two as the half ends.
Krystkowiak pauses the footage on his laptop computer, backs it up and watches it again: The screen, the switch and the pressure in the lane.
“That’s like the play of the game right there,” he says. “That’s winning basketball.”
He doesn’t reach for his sheet. Instead, he savors a brief moment of defensive perfection.
• Coach Larry Krystkowiak, pictured, personally breaks down defensive footage of his team after games.
• Using a system he learned from New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson, Krystkowiak creates and accumulates defensive data.
• The data turns into grades for each player that Krystkowiak distributes to each player after every game.
Utah at UCLA
P At Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena
Tipoff • 8:30 p.m.
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 5-14 (2-5), UCLA 10-9 (3-4)
Series • Tied 4-4
Last meeting • Utah, 67-61 (March 19, 1983)
About the Utes • The Utes are 0-9 in games away from the Huntsman Center this season. … Junior center Jason Washburn leads the Utes with 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. … In his two starts since replacing Josh Watkins, point guard Kareem Storey, the freshman has averaged 11 points and six assists.
About the Bruins • UCLA has struggled after the media picked it in the preseason to win the Pac-12 championship. … Guard Lazeric Jones leads the Bruins with 13.5 points and 4.3 assists per game.