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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak directs his charges in the second half. University of Utah defeated Evergreen State 128-44 Friday, November 8, 2013 at the Huntsman Center.
Utah basketball: It’s show-and-tell time for Utes
Analysis » After a weak nonconference schedule, Utah must step it up for Pac-12 play.
First Published Dec 31 2013 12:45 pm • Last Updated Jan 01 2014 04:41 pm

One day before Pac-12 play begins, the narrative has changed for Utah basketball. And, surprisingly, it has all happened in just two months.

In September, Utes fans would gladly have taken any trip to the postseason — NIT, CBI, whatever — as evidence of another step forward for Larry Krystkowiak’s program. But a rousing win over BYU, a close loss at Boise State and an 11-1 nonconference record have raised hopes — if not expectations.

At a glance

On your mark, get set, go

» The Utes are 11-1 in nonconference play

» Utah’s current RPI is 81*

» Utah’s strength of schedule is 350*

*Source: realtime RPI

Utah vs. No. 10 Oregon

Thursday, 6 p.m., at the Huntsman Center, TV » Pac-12 Networks

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When No. 10 and unbeaten Oregon rolls into the Huntsman Center on Thursday, it will be arguably Utah’s biggest regular-season game in years — and certainly in its short Pac-12 history. There’s speculation that this team may just be good enough to crack the middle of a tough Pac-12. There’s even talk of the Utes playing their way into the NCAA Tournament.

It has been a long time since the Utes have provided real basketball excitement in Salt Lake City. But here they are, just hours away from perhaps igniting some real optimism.

"I like the way we are going," Krystkowiak said this week. "Hopefully at the end of the day we can look back and say we are improving. A lot of it is the players. They are responsible for a lot of the change. It’s a great feeling to come into practice and see the sparks flying. But now we have to go prove it and get some wins."

That won’t be easy. Statistically, the Pac-12 has been the third best league in the country to this point. But the level of competition works in Utah’s favor if the Utes hope to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona is the top team in the country, with wins over Duke, Michigan and San Diego State. Oregon’s one of the handful of undefeated teams remaining. Colorado’s win over Kansas was marquee, and Stanford went on the road to beat Connecticut.

There’s talk of the Pac-12 getting as many as six teams into the NCAA Tournament, which would put the Utes into the hunt for a bid if they can find their way into top half by the end of the regular season. With Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge, Krystkowiak’s team has two potential all-league caliber players. Both have garnered attention in the national media for their play at the start of this season.

"They will have plenty of chances to get marquee wins," CBS Sports Network Insider Jon Rothstein said. "That’s the good thing. I think as the year goes on, Wright is going to get more and more people talking about him for what he does. He’s the kind of player who is difficult to prepare for because he can hurt you in so many ways. One game, he’s scoring the ball. Another game, he hurts you with his rebounding. He can always hurt you with his passing. I knew from talking to people who cover junior college basketball that he was expected to have an immediate impact at Utah. I think he’s exceeding expectations at this point."

Wright’s emergence and Loveridge’s breakout sophomore season are reasons that the Utes may be a year early, in terms of postseason contention. But Krystkowiak’s long dissected non-league schedule — according to realtime RPI, Utah’s strength of schedule is No. 350 nationally — could prove to be an anchor around Utah’s neck. Worse than that, Utah’s best nonconference win, against BYU, is being devalued by the game, as the Cougars have suffered consecutive losses to Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, traditional also-rans in the West Coast Conference. It benefits the Utes that the Pac-12 is at its strongest in years, but there’s significant work to do if Utah wants to be included in the NCAA conversation once March rolls around.

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The Utes play seven total games against the perceived bottom of the league — Oregon State, USC, Washington State and Washington. Winning most of them, or all of them would be beneficial.

Utah plays seven games against the perceived top four of the league — Oregon, UCLA, Colorado and Arizona. Three of those four teams are nationally ranked and that’s where the marquee wins will come from. That’s why Thursday’s matchup against the Ducks could be the most important regular season game of Krystkowiak’s tenure.

Just as important, Utah has set itself up to compete with Arizona State, Stanford, and California for what could be the league’s last NCAA Tournament bid. On paper, ASU and Stanford have better resumes, so head-to-head games could be a major factor. The Utes will see the Sun Devils twice. They will see the Cardinal and the Golden Bears once each — with both of those games coming on the road.

"The NCAA Tournament is definitely our goal," Loveridge said. "I know that people said we’re still maybe a year away, but we are just focusing on this season and trying to play as well as we can now."

Based upon some hard numbers, though, there should still be reason for caution. Krystkowiak is just 2-23 away from the Huntsman Center in his two-plus years running the Utes. So this team has to prove it can win on the road. Last season, Utah showed it can beat a team on a given night — witness wins over Boise State, Oregon and Colorado. Still, teams like USC, Washington State and Oregon State defeated the Utes handily in games that were clearly winnable.

Has this team become consistent enough to challenge for the postseason?

Those are questions that will begin to be answered on Thursday at 6 p.m. At the very least, though, Utah has set itself up for an intriguing conference run. And that’s not something you could have said about the Utes at any point in the last two years.


Twitter: @tjonessltrib

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