During what may have been Utah’s worst loss of the season, a listless showing at USC two weeks ago, Larry Krystkowiak did a curious thing.
He benched two starters to start the second half and infused the lineup with walk-on guards Alex Mortensen and Kyle Perkins.
It did little good for the Utes, who still lost 62-45, but the message Krystkowiak sent was clear: Those who play hardest will play.
Mortensen and Perkins have slowly gained the trust of the Utah coaching staff this season, including when Mortensen, who led Class 4A Utah high schools in scoring as a senior at Springville in 2009, was selected off the bench against Arizona to shoot two technical foul free throws.
“Whether or not they need us in practice or in a game, we’re just here to help the team out and help the program the best way that we can,” said Perkins, a Cortez, Colo., native. “If that means playing, it’s playing. If that means practice, it’s practice.”
Against USC, Mortensen played 18 minutes, while Perkins logged 19. They both entered the game in the first half Saturday against Oregon State when starters Kareem Storey and Dijon Farr went out with foul trouble.
As Krystkowiak has searched this season for players who will give maximum effort and acquit the program well, even in losses, Perkins and Mortensen have sneaked into the equation.
“You know how people look at walk-ons, like they shouldn’t play or anything,” junior guard Cedric Martin said. “But we beat up on them every day, so they have no choice but to get better.”
The players said that is one thing they have grown to respect about Krystkowiak: his willingness to play whoever is playing best. The coach said in Los Angeles that the second unit outperformed the starters in practice the day before, resulting in his confidence in them at USC.
“I just think everybody on our team has a fair and equal chance to play,” Mortensen said. “I just feel like coach gives everyone the equal chance and you just have to be able to go and earn it.” Krystkowiak has shown little hesitance to play non-traditional players. Blake Wilkinson started seven games in the preseason as a walk-on before he was moved to the bench. Last month, he was given a scholarship for the rest of the season
The topic of Jason Washburn’s eight blocks Saturday against Oregon State remained conversation fodder Monday at practice.
Washburn’s previous career high was two. But Washburn said his night reminded him of high school in Michigan, when he averaged seven blocks per game.
With David Foster emerging as the Utes blocking specialist the past several years, Washburn said, “My shot-blocking ability is all but diminished. It felt good to get back to my old ways.”
The first and most memorable of Washburn’s blocks was a transition rejection that Washburn said got his juices flowing.
“It’s kind of like hitting that first shot,” he said, “or grabbing that first board. You hit that first shot, all the sudden you feel confident with the second one.
“You get the first board you want to go grab another one. The feeling’s good. Blocking shots is no different psychologically.”