Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak speaks incessantly about a top-four finish in the Pac-12 basketball standings, with good reasoning. A first-round bye in the conference tournament reduces a team's workload in Las Vegas, with three wins required for the title.
For a fifth-straight season, the No. 3-seeded Utes (17-13, 11-7 Pac-12) will open the tournament in Thursday’s quarterfinals. That’s a genuine achievement in this year’s case and a distinction for the program.
Two problems, though: Krystkowiak's teams have lasted one game at T-Mobile Arena each of the previous two years. And to win the tournament, the Utes likely will have to go through three teams that beat them at the Huntsman Center: Oregon, Arizona State and Washington.
The Utes will meet Wednesday’s Oregon-Washington State winner. They’ll try to follow through on a solo third-place finish that resulted from a home-court sweep of the Los Angeles schools, including Saturday’s 92-81 win over UCLA on Senior Night in front of a season-high crowd of 12,914.
“If we go in there and lay an egg the first game, it means nothing,” said senior guard Sedrick Barefield.
The Utes will have three days of practice this week, and they'll likely spend a lot of that time preparing for Oregon's defense. The Ducks' press caused all kinds of problems in a 78-72 win Jan. 31. That contest typified Utah's in-game inconsistency, after the Utes took a 30-16 lead and then gave up a 22-4 run, going into halftime.
Nothing, however, could top the extremes of the Utes’ sweep of UCLA. From the point in Los Angeles when they trailed by 22 points to when they led by 27 in Saturday’s first half, the Utes outscored UCLA 97-47 in about 29 minutes of basketball. In the other 51 minutes, the Bruins had a 126-88 advantage.
The Utes led only after time expired in the first meeting; they were behind for only 17 seconds in the rematch.
• The short version of Krystkowiak’s summary of Utah’s regular season is “overall … successful.” That’s justifiable. Disregarding the downtrodden Pac-12, an 11-7 record is notable. The Utes finished ahead of a lot of proud programs, after multiple analytics suggested they were the No. 10 team going into conference play.
Utah went 6-3 in the second half of the league schedule, tying league champion Washington and Arizona State for the Pac-12′s best record. Krystkowiak has gone 11-7 or better five seasons in a row. That consistency is the counter-argument to Utah’s likely missing the NCAA Tournament for a third-straight year.
• The Utes have stayed about the same defensively. Their offense already was good, and it got better in the second half of Pac-12 play — not counting a horrible showing at Washington, where Timmy Allen’s absence was noticeable. Krystkowiak found new ways to attack zone defenses, and the Utes topped 90 points in four conference games.
Utah is No. 20 in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. The offense really works when the Utes have only five turnovers, as in Saturday’s case.
• Washington’s Mike Hopkins likely will repeat as the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, but Krystkowiak deserves strong consideration. Some percentage of fans never will get past his $3.4 million salary (compared with Hopkins’ $1.9 million), ranking No. 8 in the country, and they were outraged about a report of Krystkowiak’s $50,000 bonus for a winning record in conference play.
It’s also true that football coaching staffs get big bonuses for going to bowl games, requiring a minimum 3-6 conference record.
Player of the week
Barefield. The senior totaled 46 points in two games and may become Utah's first Pac-12 weekly honoree of the season. Barefield made timely shots in both games, starting with an 83-74 defeat of USC.
Play of the week
Riley Battin’s 3-pointer from the left corner vs. UCLA. The Bruins ' 22-6 run had pulled them within 11 points early in the second half, as what looked like a Senior Night frolic got tense for Utah. Battin passes up a lot of shots, but the freshman forward made a big one with Parker Van Dyke’s assist — and then another, 90 seconds later.
Another quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 tournament would be a disappointing ending to Utah's season, just because of all the effort required to reach that point. Oregon, the presumed opponent, will be tough to beat.
A semifinal appearance would make this season a success. The next question is what the Utes would have to do to get any NIT consideration.
(All times MDT)
No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 Arizona, 1 p.m.
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 California, 3:30 p.m.
No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Stanford, 7 p.m.
No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 11 Washington State, 9:30 p.m.
No. 1 Washington vs. USC/Arizona, 1 p.m.
No. 4 Oregon State vs. Colorado/California, 3:30 p.m.
No. 2 Arizona State vs. UCLA/Stanford, 7 p.m.
No. 3 Utah vs. Oregon/Washington State, 9:30 p.m.