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Utah basketball: Inexperienced Utes struggled to establish strong culture

First Published      Last Updated Mar 10 2017 07:41 pm


Utah men’s basketball » New faces, lack of upperclassmen led to seasonlong inconsistency.

Las Vegas • Sedrick Barefield was among the last to leave the locker room on Thursday evening. Others had already scuttled out, not eager to ruminate over the latest disappointing loss for the Utes this season.

Barefield didn't want to talk much about it either. But he tried to soak it in.

"We don't want to go down like that at all," he said. "Having this loss, we want to remember how this loss feels not just for the rest of this season, but also next season."

It was a learning experience for a Utah (20-11) team that, only days before, Larry Krystkowiak had remarked "I don't know if we can call ourselves a young team anymore." In a 78-75 loss to Cal in the team's first game of the Pac-12 tournament — Utah's first one-and-done in conference postseason since Krystkowiak's first season — the Utes proved they still were.




The loss came against Cal, the very team that Utah had knocked off in last year's semifinals in another thriller, this one in overtime. The key players who powered that win — Jakob Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor — were gone this year, while some key players who powered Cal's win this season — Jabari Bird, Ivan Rabb, Kingsley Okoroh — were on the floor for that loss in 2016.

That's culture: learning lessons, letting them sink in and building off of them to be more consistent. With almost a dozen newcomers and only three returners who played in last year's NCAA Tournament, the Utes — who returned the Pac-12's second least experienced team by minutes played — couldn't build a strong one this year.

It's the reason why a team that Utah beat by 30 last week could take them in the rematch; the reason why a team winless in conference play could log its only victory over the Utes at home; the reason why Utah could win three games without its best freshman in the lineup, only to lose when he returned.

It was telling that in the loss, the only players who scored in double figures were either returners (Kyle Kuzma with 23 points, Lorenzo Bonam with 12 points) or transfers from other DI schools who were with the team last spring (Barefield with 13, David Collette with 11).

"The biggest difference was within ourselves," Collette said, talking about why Utah couldn't steamroll Cal again. "I don't think we played with as much energy as we did in that game."

Before the season, Krystkowiak said he was enjoying getting back to the basics of program-building, of teaching a new cast of players how the Utes do things. But as the team got into the season, frustration increased as Utah had to learn lessons off of its losses.

From game to game, they struggled wildly in categories such as turnovers or 3-point shooting. Krystkowiak chastised his players publicly for not communicating enough in games and practices. Against Cal this week, the very edge that had delivered a blowout the week before in fast pace and rebounding vanished — the Golden Bears showed more determination to set the tone than the Utes did.

What made it more exasperating for the coaching staff (and the fans) were the flashes of brilliance. In conference play alone, Utah had five wins by double figures, including a 22-point win over then-ranked USC. A top-five shooting offense helped Utah to the 24th-best scoring margin (+10.8) in the country.

"It's not that complicated for our team," Krystkowiak said. "When we play hard, really hard, excel on the defensive end, and keep our X's and O's plan of what it is we need to do, we're pretty darn good."

But something was missing. Last year, as Krystkowiak was leading another NCAA Tournament-bound team with another future first-round draft pick at the helm, he pointed to Taylor, Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker as beams in the foundation of success. He called them "program-builders."

This season, Kuzma was the only player who has been in the program for more than two years. Six scholarship players transferring during the offseason dealt a blow to Utah's consistency. Things that had been taught to the point where, as Krystkowiak said last season, players could lead a crisp practice, became entirely new concepts to an almost entirely new group.

That sunk in with Barefield on Thursday, as he said he didn't want to see Bonam, Utah's only senior, go out on that note. The Utes are projected to go to the NIT next week, and the most they can get from that is what they lacked in the first place.

Experience.

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

 

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