Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak called a time out, walked onto the court and took a right-handed chop at the whiteboard being handed to him in Arizona.
The board hit the McKale Center hardwood. Unlike the Utes' defense, it didn't break.
Thanks mostly to their productive offense, the Utes showed promise last week as they opened Pac-12 play with an upset of Arizona State and an overtime loss at Arizona. Yet their defense regressed below the level of Krystkowiak’s first Utah team of 2011-12, the torn-down roster that posted a 6-25 record.
It's true: A starting five of Dijon Farr, Jason Washburn, Chris Hines, Kareem Story and Cedric Martin played better defense than the current Utes, according to the kenpom.com analytics. Utah is ranked No. 287 among 353 Division I teams in defensive efficiency, basically meaning that if the Utes expect to win Pac-12 games, they have to outscore opponents.
That’s frustrating to Krystkowiak, a former Utah Jazz player who built his program with a culture resembling the local NBA team’s, emphasizing tough defense and unselfish offense. The 2018-19 Utes finally have embraced sharing the ball, but stopping anybody remains difficult.
Krystkowiak played for former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. This week, he recited a Sloan mantra of “GYFG” — politely translated to “guard your guy.”
The Utes need “a sense of urgency to keep that person in front of you,” Krystkowiak said, whether they're playing man-to-man or zone defense.
That was a big problem in the first half at Arizona, where the Wildcats' drives for dishes and dunks or layups led to Krystkowiak’s whiteboard abuse. The Utes solved that issue at halftime, but then gave up too many 3-point shots and fouled too frequently as leading scorer Sedrick Barefield and center Jayce Johnson fouled out.
“Obviously, we've got to guard the ball better,” Barefield said recently. “We've seen how good we can be defensively in practice, and it's all about bringing it to the game. We've done it in spurts but we haven't put it together for a full 40 minutes.”
The Utes are 7-7 entering Thursday’s game vs. Washington at the Huntsman Center, even with kenpom.com’s No. 31 offense. Krystkowiak knew his largely new roster would skew toward offense, but he didn’t expect the discrepancy to be this stark. In September, he pictured having a “junkyard dog” reserve group that could press, trap and “stir some things up,” he said, but a lack of depth altered that strategy.
The Utes have a nine-man rotation, with freshman center Lahat Thioune having broken his foot in October and redshirt freshman guard Vante Hendrix having left the team in November. Before his injury, Thioune was blocking shots in practice unlike any Utah player in recent history, Krystkowiak said. Unless other players' injuries force him to be activated, Thioune will redshirt this season.
The specialized unit was “the master plan,” Krystkowiak said, “but [it] didn't happen.”
What's clear through 14 games is that when Utah gets defensive stops and rebounds, its offense thrives. When the other team scores, the Utes tend to struggle. Partly resulting from roster attrition, Utah's players are either veterans who are offense-oriented and freshmen who are adjusting to college basketball.
Krystkowiak and his staff looked like defensive gurus in 2014-15 when guard Delon Wright and center Jakob Poeltl, both excellent defenders on their way to the NBA, led Utah to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 with a No. 6 defensive ranking.
“It's like they beat [defense] into us, they emphasize it so much,” guard Brandon Taylor said that season. “You have no choice but to get it, because if you don't, you won't play. It's that simple.”
Krystkowiak’s current options are limited in that sense. The consolation is Utah appears to have enough offensive capability to finish in the middle of the Pac-12, as long as its defense remains better than Ray Giacoletti’s last Utah team of 2006-07. Those Utes were ranked No. 308.
Washington at Utah
At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Washington 10-4 (1-0 Pac-12); Utah 7-7 (1-1 Pac-12).
Series history: Utah leads, 15-9.
Last meeting: Utah 70, Washington 58 (2018).
About the Huskies: Washington has lost six straight games to Utah, being swept each of the previous three seasons. … The Huskies opened Pac-12 play with an 85-67 win over Washington State after trailing early in the second half. Senior guard David Crisp led Washington with 23 points. … Washington has played two true road games this season, losing 88-66 at Auburn and 81-79 at Gonzaga. …. Sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell leads the Huskies with a 17.3 scoring average.
About the Utes: Utah has had eight individual scoring efforts of 20-plus points this season, and guard Sedrick Barefield (24/26) and forward Donnie Tillman (22/21) contributed four of them in last week’s win at Arizona State and overtime loss at Arizona. … After losing to Princeton and Utah and beating Colorado, ASU (formerly No. 17) received only one vote in this week’s AP Top 25. … The Utes will host Washington State on Saturday (6 p.m.). The Cougars will play Thursday at Colorado. … Salt Lake Community College has signed former Ute guard Christian Popoola, who left the program on good terms in December.
Utah’s rankings in the Larry Krystkowiak era in adjusted defensive efficiency, based on points allowed per possession against an average opponent:
2011-12 – No. 262
2012-13 – No. 116
2013-14 – No. 33
2014-15 – No. 6
2015-16 – No. 60
2016-17 – No. 72
2017-18 – No. 63
2018-19 – No. 287