Kragthorpe: Win over BYU shows that Utah basketball is back, or at least on track
In the buildup to Saturday's rivalry game, Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak stopped short of saying BYU's visit to the Huntsman Center would serve as a major checkpoint for the Utes.
That's OK. Everyone else will do that for him especially now that the Cougars have come and gone.
Thanks to his playing and coaching experience in the NBA, with a high volume of games, Krystkowiak never looks too far back or ahead. He's a day-to-day guy.
Even so, this will rank as a very good night for his program: Utah 81, BYU 64.
Afterward, Krystkowiak was mostly sticking to his story, but the Utes celebrated loudly in the locker room. Appearing in the postgame news conference, sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge said, "It just shows that Utah basketball is back."
And Krystkowiak recognized how much the victory meant to the perception of the Utes among their own followers. "This game obviously has a little bit more credence to it," he said.
In Krystkowiak's third season, the formerly downtrodden Utes now have genuine talent and very good coaching. They made that clear against BYU, as Loveridge scored 15 of his 21 points in the game's first seven minutes and junior college transfer Delon Wright finished with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Dallin Bachynski added 11 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
This is kind of how Utah basketball is supposed to look, two years removed from a 6-25 record.
Prior to Thursday's practice, Krystkowiak spoke cautiously about his program's progress. "I'd be hesitant to toot our own horn," he said, "because then we'll get our butts kicked, you know?"
That certainly did not happen Saturday. The Utes did the administering of such treatment, leading by 20 points midway through the second half.
In that same conversation, this was Krystkowiak's only concession to the Utes' rise: "I like where we're going."
After this performance, he's not the only one.
The Utes (9-1) have played an exceedingly weak schedule, making BYU a good gauge for them. The Cougars had won had seven straight and 11 of 12 games against Utah, and it's not as if they suddenly got worse.
Well, BYU did look bad Saturday in a 33-percent shooting effort, but that's mostly a credit to the Utes, whose defense was such that "I could tell they were frustrated," Wright said.
Krystkowiak said placing too much emphasis on one game is "pretty dangerous." True, but this particular game was very meaningful to Utah - the school, and the state.
Three years after Jimmermania, college basketball was relevant around here Saturday. More to the point, the Utes themselves mattered. The attendance of 13,733 maybe was not quite at a gymnastics level, but the atmosphere was even more lively.
When he walked out of the tunnel just before tipoff, Krystkowiak looked into the student section. He glimpsed something resembling a Ute football crowd and "got a little choked up," he said.
The players noticed too. "I felt like I was in a movie," Wright said.
Two years after BYU's most recent appearance the Huntsman Center heralded a low point in Utah basketball history, everything looked and sounded different in the building. The Utes have upgraded their personnel to a stunning degree since that 61-42 defeat in December 2011, when Krystkowiak had just taken over and their only hope was to drag BYU down to their level. And that was the year after Jimmer Fredette scored 47 points against Utah.
"It's more enjoyable now, knowing that we have a chance to win some of these games," Krystkowiak said.
For much of Saturday's game, the Cougars were the ones who were overwhelmed. "We've got to go in there and play well and try to break their confidence," BYU coach Dave Rose had said. Instead, BYU (8-4) was skittish, missing 14 (of 31) free throws and all kinds of routine shots.
Meanwhile, Loveridge scored 15 quick points as Utah surged ahead 18-5. The Utes later led by 18 points before settling for a 42-29 halftime edge, thanks to Wright's rebound basket while falling down.
Utah charged ahead 58-38 after seven minutes of the second half on Brandon Taylor's 3-pointer from the right corner. BYU was done, and Utah basketball officially was back - or headed in that direction, anyway.
The next step is competing in the Pac-12, while trying to regularly replicate Saturday's effort and the setting that helped make it possible. Fans who just discovered, or rediscovered, the Utes should have been impressed.
"Maybe," Krystkowiak said, "they'll come back and check it out again."