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Utah Basketball: For Utes in NIT, it really is one game at a time

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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak gets into the game against USC at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.

By Tony Jones | The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 17 2014 01:28PM
Updated Mar 17, 2014 11:20PM

Being in the postseason is nice. The extra practice and developmental time are perks.

But Larry Krystkowiak isn’t thinking about the residual effects of an invite to the National Invitation Tournament. If Utah’s coach has been consistent about one thing, it’s his tunnel vision.

So, Tuesday night’s affair at Saint Mary’s is the sole focus for the Utes. Whether Utah can defeat the Gaels is one thing. But never let it be said that the Utes overlooked an opponent. Krystkowiak is simply not wired that way.

"I think that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves," Krystkowiak said when asked if his team is capable of making a deep NIT run. "I’m just worried about getting to halftime of the Saint Mary’s game. They’ve got a good team that’s very capable. We’re expecting a tough game and we know that we’ve got our hands full."

Specifically, Saint Mary’s has two very good players in point guard Stephen Holt and big man Brad Waldow.

Holt averages 15 points and four assists per game, and was one of the best floor generals in the West Coast Conference this season. He’s a shooter who can get to the basket off the dribble. He’s patient in coach Randy Bennett’s offense, and he can take over when needed.

The other half of Saint Mary’s offense runs through Waldow, a 6-foot-9 junior. He’s not very vertical, not really athletic. He won’t win any foot races. But he’s a load inside, strong and extremely skilled. He averages 16 points and eight rebounds a game — leading the Gaels in both categories. He’ll be a big challenge for Dallin Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen in the paint.

"The tough thing about Waldow is that they surround him with shooters," Krystkowiak said. "That makes it really difficult to help down in the post. We’re going to have to play solid defensively, and we’re going to have to challenge the shooters on the perimeter. This team is very good at spreading you out."

The winner gets either Minnesota or High Point in a second round matchup with a date and time to be determined. But for Utah, the sole mission is to extend the season past Tuesday night. One more practice. One more game is the goal.

In order to get there, the Utes must get Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge untracked. No doubt Utah’s best players have struggled a bit, especially in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Playing an out-of-conference opponent for the first time since December may help. The short turnaround and not as much scout time may be beneficial as well.

More than anything, the Utes are excited. The players are as well. This is the first postseason game for the program since 2009. It’s another signal that Krystkowiak’s rebuild is on schedule — maybe even a little ahead — and that Utah could be ready to return to the NCAA Tournament as early as next season.

"We know that we have a lot to play for," Utes guard Brandon Taylor said. "We want to keep playing as long as possible, and we’re excited for the NIT. We’re just glad that the season isn’t over."

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