In postgame interviews, Larry Krystkowiak likes to suggest themes for the reviews of his Utah basketball team, as though he's composing game stories in his mind.
Krystkowiak’s angle after Saturday’s 98-87 loss to Arizona State started with a disclaimer: “As silly as it sounds ...”
Not silly at all. Krystkowiak pinpointed the Utes' first rebound opportunity of the game, when Jayce Johnson and Riley Battin knocked the ball away from each other and out of bounds. The Sun Devils made a 3-pointer, then stole the ball and, after an offensive rebound, hit another 3 for a 6-2 lead. The Utes (14-11, 8-5 Pac-12) never got any closer in a defeat that dropped them into a third-place tie with ASU.
Those initial snapshots were symptoms of Utah’s disappointing home-court effort, another continuing theme of this Pac-12 season. The Utes are 3-4 in conference games at the Huntsman Center, and the latest loss spoiled any argument for themselves as the league’s second-best team.
Utah remains a contender for a top-four seed in the Pac-12 tournament with five regular-season games remaining, but this stuff is fragile. Going into Saturday’s action, multiple analytics projected a No. 2 seed for Utah. As of Sunday, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index forecast a No. 4 seed with 10.1 wins in 18 conference games. The reality is that Utah could fade to about No. 8 in the jumbled standings. After the Utes were 8-4, anything other than a winning record would be a big letdown.
• Inconsistency is the story of 10 basketball teams in the Pac-12 — everybody except first-place Washington and last-place California. That creates a lot of frustrated fan bases, among those that actually care about basketball.
Asked if he had an answer to Utah's inconsistency, senior guard Parker Van Dyke said good-naturedly, “I was hoping you guys did.”
Krystkowiak swatted away the explanation of Utah's youth. “That excuse is out the window right now,” he said. “There's plenty of times that our older kids are inconsistent as well.”
• Arizona State is a talented offensive team, but Utah’s defense was “piss-poor, for the most part,” said Krystkowiak, who later softened his description to “porous.”
Both assessments were accurate. ASU shot 54 percent from the field and the Utes fouled too much. ASU fouled even more in a horribly disjointed game, but Utah couldn’t take advantage. The Utes made 23 of 36 free throws (.639).
• Utah again seemed to lack energy at home, and that’s mystifying. But the in-arena announcer’s continually asking the crowd to provide it is not the solution.
With enthusiasm and a good voice, Bracken Funk won the preseason competition for the job when Bret Connor moved to Boise, Idaho. His instructions are to exhort and engage fans, and high-energy game presentation is part of the new athletic administration’s strategy to increase attendance.
Basketball fans in Utah don’t need to be told when to cheer, though. And they really don’t like to be told when to cheer.
Player of the week
Van Dyke. Even though his phenomenal run ended in the second half Saturday, when he scored two points, he was largely responsible for Thursday's win over Arizona. He also kept the Utes within 47-42 of ASU at halftime by scoring 15 points, as Sedrick Barefield struggled again. The Sun Devils caught onto him in the second half.
“They weren't leaving me at all,” he said. “They made it tough. I've got to expect that.”
Van Dyke totaled 40 points on 12-of-20 shooting in two games, part of a remarkable stretch. From the 11:14 mark of the second half at UCLA on Feb. 9 to the 4:52 mark of the first half Saturday, he scored 53 points — making 15 3-pointers in about 66 minutes of basketball. And he was on the court roughly three-fourths of that time.
Play of the week
Van Dyke’s 3-pointer from the right corner midway through the second half vs. Arizona, triggering Utah’s 18-2 run. The crowd roared.
The Utes will play Wednesday at Washington and Saturday at Washington State. This past weekend's Apple Cup meeting, a 72-70 road win for Washington, made both games appear tough. Washington is a poised, steady team. WSU is a much-improved version of the Cougars who lost 88-70 at Utah last month, when leading scorer Robert Franks was injured.
Winning at Washington is asking a lot of Utah. The remaining games — at WSU and Colorado, home for USC and UCLA — all are winnable, but the Utes also could lose any of them. That’s life in the Pac-12 for this team.