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Utah basketball: The fans are back at the Huntsman Center

Published January 18, 2014 12:02 pm

Big crowds, anchored by the MUSS, becoming the norm again at the Huntsman Center.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It took Utah men's basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak seeing a picture that was lying on his office desk to fully grasp the impact of the Utes' home crowd.

Krystkowiak, not unlike a lot of coaches, doesn't spend a lot of time gazing up at the stands during games. His focus is nearly always about what's going on out on the floor. So that explains his shock when a friend shipped him a photo of the Huntsman Center crowd during the Utes' win over BYU last month.

The stands were packed. The Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS) was overflowing. Life-sized cutouts of Krystkowiak, Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge were on full display. Multiple school flags were prominent.

The fans, in other words, are back at the JHC.

Utah is currently third in the Pac-12 in attendance, behind only Arizona and Colorado, drawing almost 9,600 per home date, That's a sizable jump over last year's average of 8,600 and is anchored by Majerus era-type crowds for games against BYU (13,733), Oregon (13,426) and Oregon State (14,044). A crowd of around 12,000 is expected for Saturday's game against No. 25 UCLA.

The picture is clear: The Utes are developing a serious home-court advantage in their third year of Pac-12 membership — and perhaps inching back towards being the basketball school Utah has been for much of its history.

"It's a beautiful sight to see," Krystkowiak said. "This has been my dream, to fill this place. Usually I'm locked in during a game, so I don't take the time to look at the crowd. I may give a quick glance during the national anthem, but that's it. When I saw the picture in my office, it really made an impression on me."

According to Grant Robertson, Utah's assistant director of marketing, the Utes have sold roughly 6,500 season-ticket packages this season. While that represents an increase, what it also means is that the Utes are getting a significant walk-up crowd on game days, which signifies a real down payment on the future of Krystkowiak's program.

Said Utah athletic director Chris Hill. "I remember going to a game recently. At the end, I walked out and people were talking about how the team looked like the good old days. I think people are pleasantly surprised at the product on the floor.

Larry's coaching well, recruiting well and building the program the right way. It's very encouraging that we're playing and being competitive with very good teams. Fans understand the progress."

The Utes were an abysmal 6-25 in Krystkowiak's first season, but the progress has been steady ever since. Utah won 15 games last season and was the surprise of the Pac-12 Tournament by making it to the semifinals. And Krystkowiak has recruited impressively, bringing in forward Jordan Loveridge last year and point guard Delon Wright this season. Both have been impact players.

The upgrade in talent has produced results. Utah is 13-4 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-12 going into Saturday's meeting with the Bruins. The Utes have won 17 of their last 19 at the Huntsman Center, pushing No. 10 Oregon to overtime before losing and thumping Oregon State and USC. So these Utes are clearly better than recent editions, and play an often-entertaining brand of basketball.

With home attendance up, so is overall men's basketball revenue — which Robertson says is at its highest level in the last 10 years.

A bigger bottom line is nice, but the most noticeable difference at the Huntsman this season is the fan demographic.

The MUSS has discovered men's basketball. An average of around 2,000 students are showing up for home games this season, with a high of more than 3,000 for the BYU game. This, after years of embarrassing double-digit student attendance at home games. The west side of the arena is now jammed, as it was Thursday against the Trojans, with a leather-lunged bunch that makes unnerving the visitors a priority.

Slowly but surely, the old arena also is becoming more fan-friendly. In-game entertainment has become more interactive.

"Everything about the program has gone through sort of a transformation," Robertson said. "The people are continually coming to games and that will rise with the success of the team. Utah's always been a historical basketball school. It transitioned to football for a long time, and if the team continues to have success, the scales will become more equivalent."

There have been hints all season that things have changed at the Huntsman Center. The Utes drew some decent crowds for some of the non-marquee nonconference games, getting 10,685 for UC-Davis and over 9,000 for St. Katherine's. And another 9,000-plus showed up for Thursday's late tipoff against USC.

The players have noticed. Guard Brandon Taylor said he hoped last week's rough, winless road trip to Washington and Washington State wouldn't deter the fans. On Thursday, he and his teammates got their wish. The MUSS was rocking and it helped fuel an 18-point win over the Trojans.

"It gets electric in this building," Taylor said. "It's something that we love to see. We appreciate the fans. We know that they have our back and we're just glad that they didn't lose faith in this team. I think they know that the best is yet to come for us." •

Gate receipts

Utah's average home men's basketball attendance in the past decade:

2004-05 • 10,777

2005-06 • 10,482

2006-07 • 9,522

2007-08 • 9,979

2008-09 • 9,916

2009-10 • 9,202

2010-11 • 8,422

2011-12 • 8,394

2012-13 • 8,611

2013-14 • 9,528*

*Through 14 home games —

UCLA at Utah

O Huntsman Center

Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV • Fox Sports 1.

Radio • 700 AM

Records • UCLA 14-3 (3-1); Utah 13-4 (2-3)

Last Meeting • UCLA 57, Utah 53 (Jan. 10, 2013)

About the Bruins • Freshman Zach LaVine is a projected NBA lottery pick should he come out after this season. … Steve Alford is in his first year as head coach.

About the Utes • Utah snapped a two-game losing streak with its win over USC on Thursday night. … Dakarai Tucker had a career-high 18 against the Trojans. —

Pac-12 attendance

School Avg.

1. Arizona 14,373

2. Colorado 9,599

3. Utah 9,528

4. UCLA 7,543

5. California 7,399

6. Oregon 6,650

7. Washington 6,239

8. Arizona St. 5,800

9. Stanford 4,715

10. USC 4,140

11. Oregon St. 3,623

12. Washington St. 2,746