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Utah Basketball: Utes look for 10th league win at Stanford

Published March 7, 2014 10:34 pm

A win would mean fourth place in the Pac-12 and a first-round bye in the conference tourney.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Palo Alto, Calif. • Larry Krystkowiak's never been one to look at the big picture.

Utah's coach has always been about the next game, the next opponent and the next singular opportunity for his team to better itself in the Pac-12. At least publicly, the NCAA Tournament is something he rarely wants to acknowledge, let alone speak of.

But day by day, this Utah team is attempting to give the tournament selection committee more and more to think about. That's a reason why Saturday's regular-season finale at Stanford looms so large for the Utes.

Win it and Utah has 10 victories in the Pac-12 — which has been one of the toughest conferences in the country this season. Win it, and the Utes have a very decent shot at finishing fourth in the league, and that would give Krystkowiak's team a first-round bye next week in the league tournament. Win, and Utah would notch its fifth RPI top-50 conquest of the season. There are very few teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble that have as many quality victories.

It all puts things into a bit of perspective. These Utes have come a long way in the past five weeks. Six wins in eight outings is proof of that.

"These guys in the locker room have stuck together," Utah sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge said. "We had a lot of early struggles, but we've known that we've had a chance to win every game that we've played. We have total confidence in what we're doing and what we can accomplish. So now, all we can do is just win games and put ourselves in the best position we can. That's the best that we can do."

Now for the flip side. Even with the recent success, noted bracketologists — ESPN's Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm from CBSSports.com — are giving the Utes very little shot at garnering an at-large berth.

Palm, in a radio interview with KFAN, even went so far to say Utah has to win the Pac-12 tournament, and that's its only path to the Big Dance. Of course, this is attributed in large part to a nonconference schedule that is one of the worst in the country. Not being able to consistently win on the road is another factor.

But that's where the bravado comes in. The Utes are winners of three straight and are a confident bunch. They won at California on Wednesday, even with the Bears desperately needing a home victory to assure their own at-large chances. The Utes are also the last team to truly make Arizona sweat for a win.

What does it all mean for the matchup at Stanford? It means Utah wants to keep the wave rolling. The Utes have played their best basketball in the last week, and a win puts them in position to make a run next week in Las Vegas. A loss? It will almost certainly knock Krystkowiak's team down to the 8-9 first-round game on Wednesday, where Washington would likely be the opponent. It could also mean a third date with Arizona in Thursday's quarterfinal.

Considering how well the Utes have played the Wildcats this season, that path is hardly a death knell. Still, it's a path Utah would probably like to avoid.

And it can be avoided for sure by winning at Stanford on Saturday.

tjones@sltrib.com

twitter: @tjonessltrib —

Utah at Stanford

P Saturday, 12:30 p.m. MST

At Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto Calif.

TV • Pac-12 Networks

Radio • ESPN 700 AM

Records • Utah 20-9, 9-8; Stanford 18-11, 9-8

Series history • Utah leads 15-10

About the Utes • Lost twice to Stanford last season by an average of 24.5 points. … Haven't won at Stanford since 1971. … Could jump to fourth in the Pac-12 with a win. … Brandon Taylor scored 13 second-half points to lead them to a win over Cal on Wednesday. … Haven't swept a road trip this season.

About the Cardinal • Chasson Randle scored 22 points in the most recent meeting between the two teams, an 84-66 Stanford win. … Projected to be safely in the NCAA Tournament field. … Have the biggest starting lineup in the Pac-12.