Utah basketball: The fans are back, ranking Utes fourth in Pac-12 attendance
Utah basketball is getting a vote of confidence with a 12.6% jump in crowd size for conference games.
Published: March 6, 2013 10:02AM
Updated: March 6, 2013 04:25PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Ute fans twirl the "drum and feather" logo during a time out as the Arizona Wildcats beat Utah 68-64 in Salt Lake City, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2013. Attendance at the game — 11,712 — was the season high for the Utes, which have the fourth highest attendance in the Pac-12.

It ranks as one of the most humiliating nights in Utah basketball history.

There was Jimmer Fredette gleefully draining 3-pointers, smiling his way up and down the Huntsman Center court to repeated standing ovations. There were the BYU Cougars blowing out the Utes in Salt Lake City by 25 points, one of the worst beatings Utah has ever suffered at the hands of its archrival.

And there in the stands sat the BYU faithful, celebrating the conquest, far outnumbering the Utes’ fans. Yes, the Cougars infiltrated the Huntsman Center in every way imaginable that cold winter night.

“It was awful,” said Jason Washburn, the only current Utah player who played in that game. “Half our student section was blue.”

The date was Jan. 11, 2011, a day that now represents a low point for the Utes. Apathetic fans fed up with the program’s failures sent a harsh message that night by their absence. After the season, Utah fired Jim Boylen and hired Larry Krystkowiak. The rebuilding began.

In year two of the Krystkowiak era — actually year one according to athletics director Chris Hill, who called 2012 a throwaway for Utah — times are still tough. Heading into the final homestand of the Pac-12 schedule with Oregon State visiting Thursday, the Utes are 11th in the conference with a 3-13 record, 11-17 overall. Utah likely will end its year next week in the league tournament, although winning a game in Las Vegas would be considered a significant step in the process. The Utes have been competitive on most nights, but have lacked the offensive firepower to climb the mountain in most cases.

The fans, however, are back.

With an average of 9,633 screaming Utes nightly, the program ranks fourth overall in attendance based on tickets sold behind Arizona, UCLA and Colorado. Utah is the only school in the league with a losing record that ranks in the top third in attendance. The numbers this season represent a 12.6 percent increase compared with last year, when the Utes went 6-25, playing mostly cast-offs and walk-ons.

“People like what they see,” Hill said. “They are optimistic, and they’ve seen some good basketball at home. They are seeing a team that plays defense and an unselfish brand of basketball.

“And I think the community is knowledgeable enough to know that the wins are going to come and the program is not that far away from being successful.”

The attendance this season can be attributed to the Pac-12 and all of the marquee teams that come to Salt Lake City. Indeed, UCLA made its initial visit this winter and the Huntsman Center was packed with a “blackout” theme.

But the encouraging sign this year is the fact that the crowds have been consistent. When Stanford made an appearance, the city was buried under perhaps its worst snowstorm of the winter. Attendance based on tickets sold reached 7,500 that Sunday night, and even though all those fans may not have used their tickets, thousands braved the weather.

The Sunday crowd for Arizona was one of the season’s best, a loud and boisterous bunch that sparked a Utah rally in the second half and nearly spearheaded a huge comeback win over the nationally ranked Wildcats.

Krystkowiak has stressed playing basketball “the right way,” and the Utes have hope for the future, with freshmen such as Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor becoming starters. Fans recognize this, and their support is evident.

“We’re honored by this,” Krystkowiak said. “We know that we’re lucky to have the support that we’ve been given. Now it’s our time to hold up our end of the bargain. We have to get some wins and start winning consistently, and we think that will start to come soon.”

Bolstering success at the ticket office is the re-emergence of the Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS). Scarce the past few years, the group has made its presence known this winter. Krystkowiak brought them pizza before a game this season. And MUSS coordinator Brynn Whikchurch made it easier for students to attend games.

“In the past, you needed to sign up to be at a game,” Whikchurch said. “This year, you can come to a game and sit in the section as long as you have a student ID. We have T-shirts on hand at every game, and the buzz on campus about the team has been really strong.”

Krystkowiak has gotten credit for selling the team to the community. These Utes are a likeable bunch off the court, a different feeling from past seasons. They have done voluntary community service, with senior guard Jarred DuBois being prominent in that role. Washburn’s maturation through five years has greatly helped, as he is the face of the program in many ways.

All these factors have contributed to Utah becoming one of the most watched teams in the Pac-12. Will this trend continue next year and the year after? That depends on winning, Krystkowiak said. At this point, however, the community seems to be buying into the job he’s doing.

tjones@sltrib.comTwitter: @tjonessltrib

A closer look

Pac-12 teams’ average attendance at home league games; increase/decrease of home attendance from last season and that figure’s percentage of change:

Arizona 14,562 +166 +1.2

UCLA 10,349 +1,368 +15.2

Colorado 10,346 +1,186 +12.9

Utah 9,633 +1,080 +12.6

Oregon 9,095 -233 -2.4

Washington 8,434 -1,355 -13.8

California 7,981 -1,571 -16.4

Arizona State 7,477 +1,527 +25.7

Oregon State 5,768 -603 -9.5

Washington St. 5,620 +692 +14.0

Stanford 4,871 -951 -16.3

USC 3,988 -99 -2.4

*Numbers are based on tickets sold

Notable attendance this season

11,712 vs. Arizona (Season-high)

11,027 vs. USC

10, 977 vs. Colorado (Team retired the sweater of Rick Majerus on this day)

9,510 vs. UCLA

9,062 vs. Arizona State

Utah’s home record this season • 9-7

Notable home wins • Boise State, Colorado, Arizona State