Kragthorpe: Utah basketball coach Krystkowiak nears end of grade period

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

Published: March 6, 2012 11:06PM
Updated: March 6, 2012 09:27PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

When the University of Utah’s historically bad basketball season ends this week, coach Larry Krystkowiak should look back and realize he’ll never have it this good.

For as much as Krystkowiak has endured, watching his Utes (6-24) trail opponents astoundingly and lose games repeatedly, everybody knows this is not all his fault.

The list of entities being blamed for Utah’s epic struggles include the athletic director, previous coaches, players who transferred, global warming, tension in the Middle East and the current coach, pretty much in that order.

That will change, soon enough.

Next year, with transfers becoming eligible and other recruits arriving, Krystkowiak will be accountable for his team’s record. This season’s 3-15 mark in Pac-12 play, entering the conference tournament in Los Angeles, actually is more humiliating to USC and the rest of the league than it is to the coach’s reputation. Even in its sorry state, Utah is not in last place.

Some combination of his NBA playing and coaching experience, his history of overcoming knee injuries and his focused approach to the workday have enabled Krystkowiak to deal with these four months of misery.

“You try not to lose sight of the fact that … our team has improved,” he said. “Things that we can fix, we’re trying to fix. Maybe not thinking so much about the big picture and the future and the program being established, we’re just trying to go to work.”

This is not to say Krystkowiak gets a full exemption for his team’s performance. At various checkpoints in games, the Utes have contributed to these shocking scores: 52-18, 67-33, 51-20 and, in the latest episode, 34-2 after 13 minutes Saturday at Oregon.

That’s some sick stuff — and not in a good way, as the current usage suggests.

In this season’s context, Krystkowiak’s nearly $1 million salary serves as compensation for absorbing losses, as opposed to his rewards for winning. Unfortunately, he’s used to this. Since leaving Montana, where he had a .700 winning percentage in two seasons, Krystkowiak is batting .300 while employed by the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets and Utah, which gave him a five-year contract.

Ben Krystkowiak, the coach’s 10-year-old son, lived through the tough experience in Milwaukee, where his father was fired as the Bucks’ head coach. With the Utes similarly losing a lot, Ben had to be reassured that nothing like that would happen this year. Instead, Krystkowiak promised him, everybody would just “keep powering through it all.”

The reality is the Utes could have performed Harlem Globetrotters routines on the court this season and nobody would have minded — or cared, which is the bigger problem. Krystkowiak spoke in April of wanting to “get the pride back” in the program. That hardly is happening yet.

Reasonably quick turnarounds are possible in college basketball. Utah State once went from a 4-23 season to an NCAA Tournament appearance. More recently, BYU followed a 9-21 record with an NIT berth and an NCAA bid in the next two seasons.

So it can be done. That also means it had better get done. Krystkowiak already is looking forward to the offseason, with recruiting, individual workouts and the Utes’ trip to South America or Europe.

During Monday’s practice, preparing to play Colorado on Wednesday, Krystkowiak referenced “the last game of the season,” before catching himself.

“It ain’t gonna be the last game,” he said.

Anyone in Uteville could be forgiven for just wanting this season to end. Yet the longer it continues, the better it will get. The same is true of Krystkowiak’s program. That’s the plan, anyway. Whatever happens from here, this much is certain: He’s responsible for it.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt