Las Vegas • Larry Krystkowiak took a look at his team in the spacious Utah locker room. He noted the dejection, their heads hanging in sweat-stained uniforms. He took a breath and promised his Utes the one thing they wanted to hear at the time.
They would get another chance.
Jason Washburn and company had just been blown out by USC on that cold Saturday in January. The final score was 76-59 as Dewayne Dedmon and his teammates happily held a block party and 3-point shooting competition in the Huntsman Center at Utah’s expense. Truthfully, the game wasn’t as close as the final 17-point margin made it seem.
“It was definitely one of our worst losses of the season,” Washburn said.
Krystkowiak that day told his team not to worry, that they would be seeing the Trojans again at some point, even though they met just that once during the regular season. On Wednesday night, Krystkowiak will look prophetic when the two teams meet in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at MGM Grand Arena.
In many ways, things have changed since then. USC fired coach Kevin O’Neill two days after the blowout. Dedmon — an athletic 7-footer who dominated the matchup with Washburn — has been suspended indefinitely, following a fight in a Spokane bar over the weekend. He isn’t expected to play.
The Utes say they are a better team than they were two months ago. Entering the tournament on their first conference winning streak ever is a good indication that the confidence isn’t just lip service. Washburn had one of his most difficult games against USC, but he has gone on to have a season worthy of Pac-12 honors.
“We think we have changed since then,” Krystkowiak said. “But we’re going to have a challenge on our hands. They are athletic, they can score, they can go small, they can go big. Them not having Dedmon means nothing because they have other big men that can come in and do the same thing. He averages 21 points per game, so there are others that can step up. In a lot of ways, we helped them out offensively in that first game.”
The Trojans shot well from the perimeter when the two teams met in January. And Jio Fontan, USC’s point guard, controlled the offense whenever he was pressured.
Krystkowiak promised significant changes in the defensive scheme this time around. The winner advances to Thursday’s quarterfinal against No. 2 California, one of the hottest Pac-12 teams entering the postseason.
The Trojans have had the better year, garnering the No. 7 seed. But they aren’t coming into the tournament on the highest of notes. In addition to Dedmon being suspended, Washington State blew USC out in Saturday’s finale.
Offensively, the Utes are playing much better basketball lately. They’ve had four double-figure scorers in each of the last two games, a product of better passing throughout the roster, Krystkowiak said.
“We’re ready to go,” Utah point guard Brandon Taylor said. “We have confidence in ourselves. We think we’ve been playing well to end the season, and we want to keep it going.”
Utah vs. USC
O At MGM Grand Garden Arena (Las Vegas)
Tipoff • Wednesday,7 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 13-17, 5-13; USC 14-17, 9-9
Last meeting • USC 76, Utah 59 (Jan. 12)
About the Utes • Jason Washburn was named all-Pac-12 honorable mention. … Utah led the league in scoring defense. … Utah is looking for its first-ever win in the Pac-12 Tournament. … Utah has won five conference tournament titles since 1995.
About the Trojans • USC will play without starting center Dewayne Dedmon. … All five Trojans scored in double figures in the previous meeting. … USC lost to Washington State in its regular-season finale. … The Trojans finished in a four way tie at 9-9.
Utah vs. USC
O Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network