OK, so Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s extending nose blew through a window when he told reporters in New York City he would rather win the NIT than make the NCAA Tournament and get the heave-ho early on.
“To me,” he said, “that is much more significant.”
And … blam-crash! … the glass shattered.
Nobody thinks like that, at least not before the NCAA Tournament invitations are awarded. It is something a coach says after his team is excluded from the main event. Given the choice, before Selection Sunday, of risking that first-round exit or having a shot to go all the way in a secondary affair, every coach in America would take the former.
Krystkowiak, of course, knows this, and knows that everybody else knows it, too.
And finishing as the runners-up in the NIT, like Utah did at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, losing to Penn State, 82-66? Where does that rank?
No bueno, man. No bueno. Chancing it all in the one-and-done Big Dance would have been better. Great risk, great reward.
Making the NIT final is something south of that. But it’s still … something.
The Utes, who were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 this season, wound up third, and then fought through relegation to that aforementioned secondary status in the NIT, utilizing admirable fight and fortitude to slog to its title game — where they suffered through David Collette’s injury and a defensive lapse that allowed Penn State to shoot 55 percent, Utah unable to slow the Nittany Lions enough to stay competitive through the second half.
Defeat for them was unhappy, but not devastating.
Their run to New York was double-barreled: It was a punctuation point to the 2017-18 season and it was a launching point moving forward.
Despite the fact that Utah had important seniors on its team this season, its passage to the NIT championship game set a positive tone for what will come next season, when junior Sedrick Barefield, who scored 22 points against Penn State, and other existing players, bolstered by promising newcomers, will combine to aim a little higher than what they achieved this season.
That means an invitation to the tournament about which a national audience cares to fill out brackets for, cares to claim bragging rights over, cares to remember.
If that sounds harsh, ask yourself this: Who won last year’s NIT? Who won the NIT the season before that? And the season before that?
Turns out, it was TCU, George Washington and Stanford.
The reason you cannot recall those winners is because … nobody can, except for the teams themselves.
Still, there’s value in what Utah achieved in its compromised postseason streak, with wins over teams such as Saint Mary’s and Western Kentucky. Once the earlier failings of the Utes had been absorbed, they picked themselves up and battled on, beating some good teams en route. They caught a brief positive vibe and made some hay.
They are better than the 69th or 70th-best team in the country, behind all of the invitees in the NCAA field. Maybe they’re the 50th-best. And now, they have a consolation runners-up certificate to commemorate it, a certificate to shove them forward toward that better end next season and the seasons thereafter. The NIT is not where they want to be.
It is as aggravating as it is satisfying.
The fans, a few of whom showed up at MSG, could enjoy it to a point. It’s like one Ute tweeter put it: “Not getting into the NCAA is disappointing, but I can still have a good time with the NIT. Kind of like being disappointed my blind date isn’t Jessica Alba, but I can still have a good time with Jessica Biel.”
Not sure the Utes’ date in New York was quite that.
For them, what happened there was more like working up a powerful thirst and then drinking stale soda, pop that was wet and cold, but more than a little flat. It might make the Utes wonder, had certain lessons been learned earlier and with more conviction and with more luck, how high they could have risen.
But, still, those underclassmen, those returners, along with Krystkowiak, will go ahead and imbibe that stale drink, using it as motivation, and, along with the promise of newcomers yet to arrive at Utah, find a colder, cleaner, crisper refreshment next time around, risking more, and potentially at least, getting in postseasons to come a more meaningful reward.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.