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Kragthorpe: Groundbreaking gives Utah stronger foundation

Published May 6, 2014 12:59 pm

College basketball • Like Krystkowiak's contract extension, new facility sends message about where Utes are going
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Having done all of the heavy lifting long before Monday, Larry Krystkowiak could enjoy sticking a ceremonial shovel into the ground and driving a bulldozer into the University of Utah's basketball future.

What's next is the fun part for Krystkowiak. If there's symbolism in the groundbreaking for the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center, it is the recognition of where this program stood when he took over three years ago.

The blueprints and architectural drawings of what Utah's program could become certainly existed in Krystkowiak's mind in the spring of 2011, much like the plans for the $36 million investment in the practice facility and improvements to the adjacent arena. But for his project, there was no promised completion date, absolutely no guarantee that this coach could bring the Utes back.

"Larry picked it up at rock bottom and has done just a remarkable job," Jon M. Huntsman Sr. said.

Looking back, enduring that 6-25 season after Krystkowiak's arrival was worth all the pain, because the Utes' record enabled them to draft a great player and accelerate the rebuilding process. What, that's not how it works in college basketball? Even with no lottery system, no incentive for losing, no fans being unhappy when the Utes occasionally won a game, Krystkowiak has succeeded in this major effort.

And the progress so far should be only the beginning. Krystkowiak has received a lot of credit for lifting the Utes to a 9-9 record in the Pac-12, and deservedly so. As of Thanksgiving Day in 2011, who would have believed that Utah basketball's program would go .500 in conference play before the football team did so?

There's no question his 6-25 record (3-15 in the Pac-12) of 2011-12 helps magnify what Krystkowiak has gone on to do. If the likes of Will Clyburn and J.J. O'Brien had stuck around, the baseline of rebuilding would have been higher. During that season, I wondered aloud why Utah basketball had to become so bad, in order to get good again.

But that's not the issue anymore. What matters is where the Utes are headed. Krystkowiak's new, five-year contract is a reflection of what he's done, but it's even more about what he's going to do.

The Utes have top-tier, Pac-12 talent now. Krystkowiak and his staff have recruited very well, and they're positioned right now to move into the top four of a league that's losing several top players to the NBA.

"I would visualize the University of Utah basketball program always being in the upper two or three or four of the Pac-12, simply because of our coaching, our remarkable physical facilities and the stature of the university," Huntsman said.

That sounds ambitious, but not unrealistic. In many ways, the Utes are on a parallel track with the Jazz. They've gone from being historically bad to respectable in two seasons, and that's what the Jazz hope to do. The difference is that going from horrible to respectable is about the same challenge at each level, but moving from mediocre to excellent is easier in college basketball.

The NBA draft rewards the struggling teams, not the average ones. But the Utes can just keep increasing their level of recruiting, and that's where the new facility comes into play. It can only help Utah's men's and women's programs attract and develop better athletes.

Utah's proud basketball tradition is being restored. Everything suggests that Krystkowiak's program will have sustainability. The coach may not stay at Utah "for life," as Huntsman suggested, but something solid is being built on this campus.

That's the message of Monday, how the Utes can celebrate having come a long way in a fairly short time, with the promise of doing even more meaningful things in the years to come.