The value of the Utes’ NIT appearance won’t be the results of their games, even if they win a tournament championship this week in New York. This postseason run’s most redeemable quality may be as an example of culture shift this season in the program.
Thus far in Utah’s NIT run, players have displayed a willingness to respond to their coach in an emotional and impactful manner, a desire to play for and with one another, and a devotion to team success even if that means somewhat subjugating individual potential.
Assuming the atmosphere carries over into the offseason, which is never a given, the shift in culture and the vibe surrounding the program as the Utes head to New York will be the lasting memory of this winter for the Utes.
“It’s completely different,” Utes senior forward David Collette said of the team chemistry compared to last season. “Everybody on the team has a better attitude, and no one is really kind of taking away anything from the team. Everybody comes, everybody gives and everybody has been super-supportive of each other. It obviously helps going through the year when you have guys like that.”
The Utes ended last winter with a whimper, and it has been no secret that chemistry issues contributed to coming up short of the NCAA Tournament and exiting the NIT in the first round with a roster that probably had more individual talent than this year’s.
Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said bluntly this postseason that he and the staff looked forward to more games with this group of players, and he admitted that he probably couldn’t have said the same thing last year.
The offseason saw talented guards Devon Daniels and Jojo Zamora leave the program via transfers. Daniels had been suspended late last season for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
This season, players as well as Krystkowiak identified a different dynamic as far back as the summer, and they’ve reiterated it throughout the season.
“The chemistry started when we went on that European tour last summer,” Utes senior forward Tyler Rawson said. “We weren’t really focused about basketball then. It was more about bonding, and I think we gained those friendships and those relationships, that really helped when the season started.”
Before this season started, Krystkowiak referred to a need to get back to the values that he and his staff had used to shape the program when they initially took over seven years ago. That included the profile of the player they recruited.
Two of the senior starters and the most indispensable players and vital cogs in this year’s team — all-conference point guard Justin Bibbins and Rawson – were players the Utes showed interest in but didn’t offer scholarships to out of high school.
Despite a roster that didn’t included a single scholarship senior who’d spent four years in the program and with two of the top five players in minutes played per game – freshman Donnie Tillman and Bibbins – being in their first season in the program, the Utes have seemed to almost immediately buy into the idea of the team success superseding individual attention.
“It’s just our personalities,” Bibbins said. “We all jelled with each other. There wasn’t no hotheads on the team or people that suck the life out of the team. We all wanted to learn, to get better, and we all love playing with each other. I think that’s the biggest thing. One through 15, we love our roles. We love being out there. We love playing with each other.”
If this season ultimately serves as a point where the Utes re-established their program’s identity internally, then the postseason wins in the NIT will simply serve as examples. After all, they leaned on different players at different times, relied on contributions off their bench to spark improved play, and got crucial plays from multiple players in key moments.
Utah vs. Western Kentucky
at New York
Tuesday, 5 p.m. MDT
One of the biggest shots made in overtime of Wednesday night’s win over Saint Mary’s came on a 3-pointer from Gabe Bealer, who had been scoreless throughout regulation. The Utes played overtime without Collette (back injury), Jayce Johnson (fouled out) and with Bibbins, the team’s leading scorer, mired in a bad shooting night.
“We’ve all been in organizations, and you’ve probably been in some that – when you felt it – was really positive and fun,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s a lot easier to feel it than it is to describe it. On the flipside of that, when you’re in kind of a toxic environment you could go on and on trying to describe it, but it’s more that feeling.
“We’ve got good guys, and they care about each other. One of the things we talk about in our culture is you’ve got to buy into something that’s bigger than yourself. A lot of times it’s selfishness that gets kind of toxic, and we have none of that.”