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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's Josh Watkins, defended by BYU's Craig Cusick as Utah hosted BYU at the Huntsman Center, college basketball in Salt Lake City, Utah, Saturday, December 10, 2011.
Kragthorpe: Utah coach Krystkowiak’s stand will make Utes better, eventually
First Published Jan 19 2012 10:37 pm • Last Updated Apr 05 2012 11:37 pm

Someday, this week’s portion of the Utah Utes’ historically disastrous season will be viewed as a starting point, the moment when coach Larry Krystkowiak launched this basketball program in the right direction.

That’s strange to say, I know, when the Utes lost Thursday by 20-plus points for the ninth time this season, when a guard rose in an apparent effort to beat the shot clock and then bounced the ball off the center’s head, when Arizona responded to the ejection of its best player with a 20-2 run and when the home team crumbled in the second half of a 77-51 defeat at the Huntsman Center.

At a glance

Low-water marks

Standing 4-14 with 13 games remaining (counting a Pac-12 tournament game), the 2011-12 Utah Utes are likely to have one of the worst records in the state’s Division I college basketball history. The low point for each school:

BYU » 1-25 (1996-97)

Southern Utah » 7-22 (2009-10)

Utah » 8-19 (1972-73)

Utah State » 4-23 (1981-82)

Weber St. » 7-22 (1986-87)

Krystkowiak’s updated résumé

In two seasons as Montana’s coach, Larry Krystkowiak posted a 42-20 record. His career mark in college is now 46-34. To finish the 2011-12 season with an overall winning record, he must win at least one more game. Since leaving Montana, Krystkowiak has coached the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks for 100 games (31-69) and the Utah Utes for 18 games (4-14). His combined record with those teams is 35-83 (.296).

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Yet by dismissing leading scorer Josh Watkins from the team this week, Krystkowiak made more of an imprint on his program than anything his team could do on the court this season.

Nobody can say for sure how many games this coach will win at Utah, but his willingness to lose — and lose badly — right now will have an impact going forward.

Krystkowiak said his response to Watkins’ repeated violations of team rules was not meant for the sake of future results. His action did represent "one of the pieces of the foundation" he’s trying to build, however.

The move was Krystkowiak’s only choice, if he wanted to establish any genuine expectations and demands of the players in his program. There could be no merit in keeping Watkins in the interest of pursuing an extra victory or two, while making the other players wonder about a double standard — or any standard at all.

The question remains how many changes of culture, how many rebuilt foundations, will this program have to experience until something takes hold permanently? This continual cycle of hiring a new coach and having the players alternately respond and regress needs to stop somehow.

That may or may not happen with Krystkowiak, but this much is clear: It never would happen if his former point guard had gone unchecked, whatever explanation there may be for his behavior.

The sad part is that Watkins stayed here when some of his former teammates left over the summer — and now he won’t finish his senior season. The further irony is he could not conform to a program that was showcasing him on the court, as opposed to restricting him. The ball was in his hands all the time, until he dribbled the thing off his foot.

So his teammates play on without him, which understandably is difficult. Invited to endorse Watkins’ dismissal for the program’s benefit, center Jason Washburn just said he would "not second-guess" his coach.

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This 4-14 team’s destiny long ago became topping — bottoming might be a better word — the worst record in Utah’s modern history, the eight-win season of 1972-73. The Utes lost by 31 points to Cal State Fullerton when Watkins initially was suspended in December, so Thursday’s performance represented a slight upgrade.

Some conceivably winnable games remain for the Utes, including Saturday’s visit from Arizona State, and next season appears reasonably promising with the addition of redshirts and recruits. For now, Krystkowiak is stuck in a losing vortex, having won less than 30 percent of his games with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and the Utes after enjoying success at Montana.

Of course, the fans are the ones suffering the most through all of this, because they’re paying to be punished. All they’re getting from the Utes is sporadic effort and unintentional comic relief.

Thursday’s best material came via recorded segments on the video board, including Krystkowiak’s pregame admonition to fans to "follow the rules" of sportsmanship and assistant coach Tommy Connor’s congratulating a shooting contest winner in a clip by supposedly asking his boss, "Do we have any scholarships available?"

Well, yes, as it turns out.

No infusion of talent is coming right away, though, as Utah plays out its inaugural Pac-12 season. If it truly is necessary to get worse in order to get better, the Utes have that first part covered.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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