The first game of the season brought Evergreen State to the Huntsman Center. Utah beat the little NAIA school from Olympia, Wash., by 84 points — and it could have been worse.
The final game of the Utes’ non-conference schedule is against St. Katherine College, another NAIA school that also just happens to be a first-year program.
Utah’s non-conference breakdown
The cupcakes » Evergreen State, St. Katherine, Grand Canyon, Idaho State, Savannah State, Lamar.
Quality opponents » BYU, Boise State.
In-betweens » UC Davis, Ball State, Fresno State, Texas St.
Utah vs. Grand Canyon
Thursday, 7 p.m.
It will not be pretty.
In between, the Utes play NCAA Tournament contenders BYU and Boise State, but for the most part, the schedule is larded up with schools like Idaho State, Grand Canyon, Lamar and Savannah State — the latter three of which will be playing at the Huntsman beginning Thursday as part of what is being billed as the Global Sports Hoops Showcase.
In a year when Larry Krystkowiak’s program may open eyes with a much-improved roster and more athletic lineup, the Utah men’s basketball coach and athletic director Chris Hill are spending a lot of time defending what several national publications have called one of the 10 worst non-conference schedules in the country.
Ute fans also are weighing in.
"I’ve been a Utah fan since I was five," said Holladay resident Jason Hall. "I won’t ever stop coming to the games. But at the same time, the schedule is embarrassing. There’s no reason for some of those teams to be coming to the Huntsman Center. I understand that the program is rebuilding. But at some point, we have to start playing some tougher teams."
Hill said most of the 2013-14 schedule was done two years ago — when Utah was in the process of going 6-25 and having the worst season in the history of the program. Few anticipated the leap the Utes would make the following year, when the they won 15 games and got to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
Krystkowiak said that attempts were made this summer to toughen up the schedule, but games that looked like they were going to happen fell through. But he makes no apologies for the final November-December product. The Utes are still in rebuilding mode after plunging to precedent-setting depths.
"The schedule is what it is, and we know what we’re going to do moving forward," Krystkowiak said. "We shouldn’t have too much hype as a team because we have seven newcomers. Going forward, the schedule is going to pick up. I did what I thought was right for our team."
Hill echoed that sentiment.
"We’re fully aware that it’s not a good schedule," he said. "We have good fans, however, and I think they’re understanding what we want to get done. We’re in a unique situation of trying to build the program. But I want to stress that this is not the schedule we will have in the future."
Both Krystkowiak and Hill said talks are in place for future series against several teams from various big-six conferences. Hill also says that he is attempting to renew the in-state rivalries with Utah State and Weber State, which he says are important to him and knows are important to fans.
Utah and Utah State are tentatively scheduled to resume playing each other again next season, but The Tribune has learned that game may be put off until 2015 — at the earliest — because neither team can find a suitable date. Hill says he has had discussions with Weber State to get the Wildcats back to the Huntsman Center. But the Utes have probably played their last game in Ogden for awhile.
For Krystkowiak, one basic requirement for playing teams from the big six conferences is home-and-home arrangements. And those have been tough to come by with the Utes in rebuilding mode. Most potential BCS-type opponents want 2-for-1 deals — two games at their place and one in Salt Lake City.
It’s not that Utah isn’t playing anybody in November and December. The arch-nemesis Cougars visit the Huntsman Center next month and Boise State is a legit condenter in a very good Mountain West Conference. Fresno State is an MWC also-ran, but is 2-1 with a quality win over UC-Irvine and Ball State is a mid- to upper-tier program in the Mid America Conference.
Some Utes fans think the whole schedule thing is a bit overcooked. Utah will play plenty of marquee games starting in January.
"I think the Pac-12 will be at its best since we joined three years ago," season-ticket holder Ben White said. "So in my opinion, I think the weakness of the non-conference is a bit overblown. There are a few decent teams there. I completely understand the need to schedule some guaranteed wins as the program rebuilds. It helps build confidence, it gets players experience and it gives the staff a feel for who can do what."
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