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Utah basketball: Are the Runnin' Utes back?

Published December 10, 2013 8:51 am

With an infusion of athletic young players, Utah has picked up its pace this season.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The run was so explosive. It was so prolonged. It was so...unlike last year.

By the time Utah's 90-77 win over Fresno State Saturday was complete, the numbers of the second half were nothing short of impressive. The Utes scored 50 points in the final 20 minutes. The 16 points they scored in a three-minute span gave them separation the Bulldogs never were able to narrow. Much of the damage was done in transition, pleasing those who braved the snowy weather to come to the Huntsman Center.

If the first eight games are any indication, the Runnin' Utes may be back. Larry Krystkowiak hinted at the desire to play faster in the preseason, with players echoing the sentiment. But nothing provides more perfect proof than actually doing it. Heading into Tuesday's home match up with Idaho State, Utah's averaging 87.6 points per game, ranking them 11th nationally. The Utes have scored at least 80 five times, and have scored below 70 just once.

It's a different feeling, as Krystkowiak has his team playing up-tempo basketball for the first time in his three-year stint on the hill. Instead of slowing it down, Utah's pushing the pace. Instead of struggling to score points, the Utes (7-1) are doing so in bunches.

"This is how we want to play," Krystkowiak said. "We want to get up and down. We want to run but we had to have the guys who could do this. We talked about changing the way we play over the summer as a coaching staff. We knew what we wanted to do and it's kind of playing itself out."

By contrast, Utah scored 64.2 points per game last season, which placed the team 256th nationally. Yes, the pace was almost snail-like at many times, but if the Utes wanted to win games in the Pac-12 that was simply the style they had to play.

A drastic change in personnel has precipitated the switch in tempo. There aren't many guards who can penetrate and set players up like Delon Wright has in his first eight games. He's averaging six assists per game and has become a terror in the open court.

The Utes have added depth and athleticism on the wings. Sophomore Jordan Loveridge has proved to be a mismatch for most teams at power forward, and for the first time, Krystkowiak's had real options on his bench ready to come in and contribute.

"The coaches have really allowed us to play free and make decisions on the fast break," senior center Renan Lenz said. "We have athleticism this year and that athleticism is making an impact for us."

On the surface, those are major changes. But it goes a little deeper than that. Utah this season is pressuring defensively, forcing turnovers and converting them into easy points. The Utes also have more ball handlers on the floor. Last year, Brandon Taylor was the only player consistently able to lead a break. Now, everyone from Wright to Taylor to Loveridge is able to do so.

The change took some trust. Krystkowiak sometimes cringes when someone sails a pass out of bounds. Like any coach, he views turnovers as a major pet peeve. But his team plays defense and with a large recruiting class making its mark this season, Krystkowiak knew he needed to speed things up. After all, today's athlete wants to run, and it becomes harder to attract talent needed to compete in the Pac-12 if it's shackled with half-court basketball.

Altitude is another reason. Krystkowiak has said he wants to take advantage of the thin Salt Lake air the Utes inhabit. Saturday provided proof it makes a difference, as FSU played fast and loose at every opportunity in the first half, but noticeably grew tired in the last 10 minutes.

With the mistakes have come some noteworthy results. Saturday's run against Fresno State probably wouldn't have happened at any point last season. Utah scored 94 points against UC Davis and 88 against Ball State. When the Utes face off against BYU on Saturday, it will probably mark the first time in years Utah won't be hesitant to run with the Cougars.

"Coach always tells us that it starts with defense," Taylor said. "We want to run, but we can't do it if we don't play defense, or finish the defensive possessions. We feel that if we do that, we can try to get out and get easy baskets. That takes a lot of stress off the half-court offense."

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tjonessltrib Utah this year

• Averages 87.6 points per game, ranking the team 11th nationwide

• Scored below 70 points once in eight games

• Scored at least 80 five times

Utah last year

• Last in the Pac-12 in overall scoring

• Averaged 64.2 points per game

• That was 256th nationally —

Idaho State at Utah

P Tuesday, 7 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Network