Kudos to the Utes.
They’ve taken a few of the unwanted zzzzzzzzzz’s out of your early winter nights.
They’ve made it worth your effort and time this coming season to stay awake — and on certain occasions even alert — for their non-conference basketball schedule in November and December, a span that too often in the past has been nothing more than an extended snooze-fest, a time to snore away until Pac−12 play started in January.
In 2018-19, Larry Krystkowiak has loaded in just enough quality opponents to satisfy those who have craved for reasons to care, for good basketball over a period that has rarely been any kind of thrill a minute.
Not unless playing Montana Tech and Prairie View A&M and Northwest Nazarene and Coppin State and Concordia and Cal State Monterey Bay and Texas-Pan American and Evergreen State spins your beanie.
It doesn’t. And it hasn’t.
Those are some of the teams Utah lined up over the past five seasons, and its combined point differential in those eight contests totaled a 786-410 advantage for the Utes.
If real competition is what pulled you into sports, instead of the slaughter of baby seals, many of Utah’s early games would not have qualified. Other programs around the country have done likewise.
Things are evolving.
When Krystkowiak recently revealed the 2018–19 slate, there were just enough notable non-league games to give that bit of new hope. Dogs remain on the schedule — for instance, Maine, in the opener, is a mere yawn, the Bears having finished 6–26 last season, and Mississippi Valley State, a team the Utes beat last year by the count of 91–51, will return to the Huntsman Center. But other opponents/matches include games at Minnesota and at Kentucky, and home contests against Nevada, a Sweet 16 team, and Tulsa, and potential neutral-site/tournament games against Seton Hall and BYU.
There’s good reason for jacking up the non-league schedule, beyond what Krystkowiak noted in his news release on Thursday, in which he said: “I believe our program is at a place where we are up for the challenge and we are all very motivated to play such a grueling non-conference schedule. Obviously, the Pac-12 is quite demanding and this will certainly help us get prepared for league play. This is what we signed up for and we look forward to the task in front of us.”
Don’t know that the task is straight “grueling,” but it is at least semi-interesting. And useful, too, as the coach stated as preparation for the conference battles that come afterward. Playing the Gophers, the Wildcats, the Wolf Pack, the Pirates and the Cougars goes beyond just that though.
It helps bolster the Utes’ chances, if they rise to that level, to make the NCAA Tournament, something that eluded them last season, despite finishing third in the Pac−12. Other league teams also missed out, in large measure because their non-conference results did not impress the tournament selection committee.
Turns out, even losses against stiffer competition can be more helpful than lopsided victories over crappy teams.
That’s the actual lesson here. And Utah seems to have noticed.
If by some sweet circumstance the Utes find a way to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, or even Nevada at the Huntsman, imagine how far that will go, added to a strong showing in Pac−12 play.
Which is to say, it’s worth playing those kinds of contests long before the stuff gets real in the Pac−12. They are risky, but the risk is no greater — it is, in fact, lesser — than playing and crushing a bunch of teams that carry no impact at all, expecting the one-sided margins to hold the attention and capture the imagination of basketball people who are fully aware that those games are not equal matches and mean virtually nothing.
Improving the non-league schedule, then, is a win-win-win, even if there are some losses involved.
The Utes win because they are steeled — adhering to Denny Crum’s old philosophy that early tough games almost always are beneficial to the progression of a decent team — to battle more effectively later in the season. The Utes win because the people who subsequently set postseason opportunities put such a priority on those games. And the Utes win because their fans can enjoy authentic competition, not just in the back half, when Arizona, UCLA and Oregon come to town, but throughout the season, even in November and December, when they’re used to games curing their insomnia.
Nobody likes their college basketball masquerading as a dose of Lunesta or Ambien or as two scoops of NyQuil. No Utah fans want to hear from the doc, “You need some rest. Watch the Utes play tonight and call me in the morning.”
Maybe now, they won’t have to.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3–7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.