In their quest to rebuild a once-proud basketball program, the Utah Utes hope a surprising showing in the Pac-12 Tournament is merely the start of what's to come.
The Utes also would like everybody to forget how their week in Las Vegas ended.
In Friday's late semifinal game, Oregon's suffocating defense subjected the Utes to a 64-45 defeat. The Ducks, who will play UCLA for the tournament title, undid some but not all of the good that Utah had done in advancing to this point at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
One of the four semifinalists in this competition clearly did not belong with the others. But that's ultimately a compliment to Utah. The Utes may have looked like misfits Friday, but they earned this opportunity to be embarrassed. They altered the look and feel of their program in the process.
In an arena historically known for big boxing matches, the Utes "felt like we all got punched in the face a little bit," said coach Larry Krystkowiak, who otherwise was very proud of what his team accomplished by playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
In the past seven days, the Utes cost Oregon a share of the regular-season conference championship with their victory at the Huntsman Center, then took down USC and No. 2-seeded California in the tournament. That's where their resurgence ended, although Krystkowiak hopes this team's work will have a lasting effect.
"When you have enough players that care as much as you do as a coach, you've got a special group," he said after the win over Cal. "They were so resilient. Â And we've continued to make improvements."
Unfortunately for the Utes, such progress was in evidence only for a brief stretch of the second half Friday. Utah fans held "Believe" signs in tribute to Krystkowiak's mantra against Cal, but Oregon's defense took away most of the Utes' inspiration.
None of Utah's senior starters Jason Washburn, Jarred DuBois or Cedric Martin scored in the first half as Oregon took a 29-15 lead. In Salt Lake City, Utah scored 26 points in the first 9:19 and 44 by halftime. In the rematch, the Utes needed 25:40 to reach 26 and 38:06 to hit 44.
The Ducks obviously were motivated this time, and there would be no miracle run to the NCAA Tournament for Utah. The next phase of the rebuilding project obviously revolves around offense, for a team that frequently struggled to score in 2012-13.
Yet there should no minimizing what the Utes did in Las Vegas.
You could make a case that just by reaching the semifinals, they accomplished as much as any Utah team in any Pac-12 sport in the school's two years of membership except for a second-place finish in the 2012 women's gymnastics meet.
That performance was expected. This effort was a nice surprise. It's evident that Krystkowiak's program has grown in his second season, and there's reason to believe the upswing will continue.
The emergence of freshman stars Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, who struggled Friday after a big game against Cal, and a promising recruiting class should extend the Utes' momentum into 2013-14.
When they stood 3-13 in conference play, their improvement this season was difficult to quantify. But then they won four straight games and suddenly found themselves in a final four with three teams that are NCAA locks: Oregon, UCLA and Arizona.
That's when the Utes proceeded to distinguish themselves from the others, in a bad way. The good news is they'd already risen far above their former selves.