The Utah men’s basketball team practiced early Sunday afternoon. Then the Utes dispersed and went to dinner before returning to learn their postseason fate.
Here’s what they found out: They were invited to the National Invitation Tournament. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was the No. 5 seed and a Tuesday opener at Saint Mary’s, one of the best teams in the West Coast Conference.
Utah at St. Mary’s
Tuesday, 9 p.m.
So if the Utes are to make a lengthy run through the NIT and get to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and finals, they will have to do it on the road, which hasn’t exactly been their strong suit this season.
"We’re happy to be playing," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said Sunday night. "We had a terrific practice [Sunday]. We were physical and we got a lot done. We’re looking to extend the season as long as we can. We’re looking to gain some experience and some valuable practice time. Frankly, road games aren’t the worst thing for this team. It’s something we need more experience at."
Saint Mary’s finished fourth in the WCC, behind San Francisco, BYU and Gonzaga. The Gaels are a team that regularly qualifies for the NCAA Tournament. They are coached by Randy Bennett — a onetime Utah coaching candidate — and led by people like Stephen Holt, Brad Waldrow and James Walker III, the latter of whom started his collegiate career at Utah State.
That makes this a difficult matchup for the Utes. Saint Mary’s shoots the ball well, is deliberate offensively and never hurts itself with excessive turnovers. Utah’s last game was a 71-39 loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. Krystkowiak’s first order of business after returning from Las Vegas was to make sure there hasn’t been any residual effect from what was by far the worst loss of the season.
"We just told the players that it’s time to turn the page," Krystkowiak said. "We were happy to practice, because it meant that we were still going to be playing. That was a great thing. We just want to make sure that we’re sound of mind. We’re ready to go."
Krystkowiak said he didn’t know much about the Gaels, but that he and his staff will be breaking down game film over coming days. Utah will hold a practice early Monday morning, and will then travel to the Bay Area.
So the Utes, who have been so fragile on the road this season, will have to steel themselves. If they get past Saint Mary’s, a potential second-round matchup at Minnesota awaits.
It’s not exactly the ideal circumstance. But in many ways this is symbolic, because for this Utah team, nothing has come easy.
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