Fortunately, or not, Larry Krystkowiak has endured worse moments as Utah’s basketball coach.
The experience of watching the Utes trail by scores such as 52-18 and 34-2 only two years ago was good preparation for what unfolded Thursday in a 71-39 loss to No. 1 seed Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Krystkowiak’s demeanor dictates that he never overreacts. He absorbed this punishment with the proper mixture of dismissing it as one bad day and accepting it as the current reality.
“I see it as a great challenge for where we need to be,” Krystkowiak said.
After Utah’s first-round win over Washington, I wrote: “Regardless of what happens from this point … the Utes will walk away from 2013-14 proudly, having left a good impression.”
Well, it seemed true at the time.
The Utes’ previous seven regulation losses this season came by a total of 35 points, and they trailed Arizona by 36 at one stage.
No matter how much of an aberration this performance was, it still must be labeled an embarrassment. All the good things the Utes have accomplished this season couldn’t be undone in 40 minutes in Las Vegas, but this showing shouldn’t be totally disregarded, either.
After falling by 26 points at home in their first Pac-12 meeting with Arizona in 2011-12, the Utes had not lost by more than nine points in five games — including an overtime contest three weeks ago. The Wildcats apparently had enough of that stuff, blitzing Utah with a 15-0 run that effectively ended the game in the first half.
The Utes, the Pac-12’s best shooting team, finished at 25.5 percent. Even if they could blame the other guys — “The majority of it was their defense,” said center Dallin Bachynski — that’s not good.
The Wildcats’ overwhelming performance left the Utes feeling “a long way away from that caliber of team,” Krystkowiak said.
Arizona’s last shot rimmed out, or the Utes would have lost by the exact same score as Utah State vs. San Diego State, about a mile away. That’s a combined rout of 66 points along Tropicana Avenue. Thank goodness, Utah Valley University saved some of the state’s hoops dignity on the other side of I-15.
The Utes will have a postseason opportunity to improve everyone’s judgment of them. Everything that Arizona goes on to do this weekend and in the NCAA Tournament will reinforce how gamely Utah competed against them in two regular-season meetings.
But this episode was painful to witness. The Utes actually showed signs of effective offense in the early stages, with Delon Wright’s assist of Bachynski’s dunk and Bachynski’s pass for Princeton Onwas’ layup.
The rest of the afternoon was absolutely brutal. Utah stars Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Wright combined for 1-of-16 shooting. None of them scored in the first half, which ended with Jeremy Olsen’s airballing a 4-foot hook shot and the Utes trailing 34-13. And then Onwas was benched after the opening possession of the second half, having launched a quick 3-point attempt.
The positive effect of Thursday’s adventure should be Wright’s honest self-evaluation that he needs another season in Krystkowiak’s program to better prepare himself for the NBA. Loveridge’s game also needs to keep expanding and Taylor simply has to be tougher against elite competition.
That’s all part of a growing program, and maybe it’s healthy to discover that the Utes haven’t quite arrived yet. They’ll get where they’re going, as long as Kryskowiak’s staff keeps recruiting well and the players continue to develop. As of Thursday, Arizona’s standard as the Pac-12’s flagship program seemed hopelessly beyond Utah’s reach.
In truth, the gulf is not nearly as wide as a 32-point margin suggests. There’s also no denying that it exists.