Utah basketball: Through all the losses, Utes have overachieved
Utah's regular season will end without fanfare this week, with two games in the verdant Pacific Northwest that, if the previous 28 contests are an indication, the sporting world won't much care about.
But one surprising wrinkle should not be lost in the muck of the ongoing 6-22 (3-12 Pac-12) season: Under first-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, this miscast bunch of players has not merely improved, but has lifted the Utes to late-season respectability.
"Obviously, in the wins-losses category, most people would look at it and be disappointed," junior center Jason Washburn said.
But for a program that has made no bones about starting from scratch, the progress can't be measured in the overall season record.
"It's kind of the beginning steps of getting something rolling," Krystkowiak said.
In recent years, heads are all that have rolled in the Huntsman Center, with coaches Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen being shown the door after failing to meet expectations.
A frequent criticism of Boylen's teams was that they didn't improve much from October through the end of the season. The same cannot be said of Krystkowiak's first group.
The team that lost by 31 to Cal State Fullerton in December bears little resemblance to the one that eked out a 57-56 win over Stanford (19-10, 9-8) in resilient fashion on Saturday, and the one that lost by 40 to Colorado on New Year's Eve, very nearly beat the Buffaloes two weeks ago.
Barring a miracle finish to the season, the Utes will still finish with the worst record in the program's modern history. The 1972-73 Utes finished 8-19 and won four Western Athletic Conference games.
Utah plays at Oregon State and Oregon this week, before getting a shot next week in the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles, most likely against the Cardinal or UCLA.
Given the blows the Utes have taken this season, even if they don't win again, they should be considered overachievers.
While this season will live in the gallows of Utah's proud history, the distinction might have been avoided entirely had 7-foot-3 center David Foster not broken a tiny bone in his foot in a preseason loss to Adams State and had senior point guard Josh "Jiggy" Watkins kept his head on straight and avoided dismissal.
Without those two, players such as Dijon Farr and Cedric Martin have been forced to play out of position, while others have played significant minutes through injuries. The Utes have resorted to, at times, giving three walk-ons valuable minutes.
All of which makes Utah's win Saturday over Stanford and the fact the average margin of loss in the four games leading up to it was less than nine points more impressive.
For perspective: In their eight-game losing streak at the beginning of the season, the Utes were outscored by an average of 21 points per game.
The Utes were already short-handed when the season began with just four returners. Without Foster and Watkins, Washburn and junior guard Chris Hines were the only ones left and, fittingly, those two have carried the team.
"Who knows what the season would have been like if we'd had all four returners and two seniors," Washburn said, "if we'd had our leading scorer and [one of] the leading shot-blockers in the nation? Who knows what the season would have been like? Maybe it would have been different; maybe it wouldn't have made a difference at all."
The unavoidable and pleasantly unexpected truth is that the Utes who stayed through last season's coaching change have coalesced with the junior college transfers and freshmen Krystkowiak threw at the roster, like noodles against a wall.
This season has been a test, for both the players fighting to keep a place on the team and Krystkowiak.
For a team that hasn't had much to play for since November, it possesses one final characteristic that might, by now, be unexpected.
"The guys who've played," Washburn said, "have played their hearts out."
Next up for the Utes
Thursday • at Oregon State (15-13, 5-11), 8 p.m.
Saturday • at Oregon (20-8, 11-5), 4 p.m.
Tracking Utah's progress
Past five games:
Feb. 9 • Arizona State 57, Utah 52
Feb. 11 • Arizona 70, Utah 61
Feb. 18 • Colorado 55, Utah 48
Feb. 23 • California 60, Utah 46
Saturday • Utah 57, Stanford 56