Las Vegas • Larry Krystkowiak lives for this stuff.
The University of Utah coach is 1,000 miles and most of a lifetime away from the tiny northern Montana town of Shelby, where the high school district tournament was staged. That’s where he came to love the atmosphere and the consequences of postseason basketball, with the opportunity to play your way to something bigger and better.
So here he is in Las Vegas, where his Utes may have their best chance to do something they’ve never done — win the Pac-12 tournament. That’s likely what Utah (19-10) will have to do to play in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not unfair. And even with the variable of David Collette’s ankle injury, the Utes are better equipped than ever to win a title in Las Vegas.
Even the best Utah teams of this decade lacked the athletic ability to match up with Oregon’s talent. Coincidentally enough, the Ducks are the first opponent for the No. 3-seeded Utes. In Thursday night’s late quarterfinal game, Utah will meet Oregon, a 64-62 winner over Washington State in the first round.
This is the Pac-12 tournament’s sixth year in Las Vegas. The Utes already have considerable history here, starting with their unlikely rise to the semifinals in 2013, thanks to Jarred DuBois’ tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Lorenzo Bonam’s end-to-end drive to force overtime against Cal in the 2016 semis, on a play that started with 4.3 seconds remaining, is just as memorable.
The other emotional extremes include the buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Oregon’s Joseph Young in the 2015 semis and some blowout losses to Arizona and Oregon, especially the Ducks’ rout in the 2016 championship game.
Krystkowiak remembers it all, fondly or not. “I love this time of year,” he said Wednesday, standing outside the unpretentious high school where the Utes practiced.
If they’re left out of the NCAA field on Sunday, the Utes would have a tough time dealing with Arizona State’s inclusion, considering the Sun Devils went 8-10 in the Pac-12 and lost to Colorado in a first-round game Wednesday. ASU finished three games behind the Utes in the standings.
Utah clearly is as good as the Sun Devils, as shown by the two games between those teams. The Utes lost to ASU in a game they should have won; they also won a game they should have lost. Yet the Sun Devils may be rewarded for what they’ve done all season, notably beating Kansas on the road and Xavier in a Las Vegas event. The NCAA committee should judge teams from November through early March, rather than only the conference schedule. ASU certainly is testing that theory.
Krystkowiak, of course, would argue in favor of recency. “I hope some attention is paid to teams that have improved from the beginning of the year to the end and they’re playing good basketball at the right time,” he said. “We’re a much better team than we were back then.”
Utah is not even mentioned in ESPN’s Bracketology among the eight teams judged to be outside the NCAA field. USC and UCLA are in that category.
“It’s not time for a big sales pitch and standing up and trying to sell your program,” said Krystkowiak, whose attitude is to “put all the discussion aside and try to loop three wins together.”
That’s conceivable for these Utes. Last March, before the No. 4-seeded Utes lost to Cal in the quarterfinals, Krystkowiak sensed something was wrong with his team. “I really feel markedly different,” he said, “than I did a year ago at this time.”
The current Utes will have as many as three chances to validate his belief in them.