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This young Utah team can be a factor in the Pac-12

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah bench celebrates Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) who dunked on the Ducks in the second half. The University of Utah basketball team was defeated by Oregon, 64-69, Jan. 4, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Larry Krystkowiak was starting to ramble a little.

Regardless of the question, the University of Utah head coach veered off course early Saturday evening, minutes after the Utes gave No. 4 Oregon all it could handle in a 69-64 loss at the Huntsman Center.

Krystkowiak gathered his thoughts, then delved into an overarching storyline surrounding this team, which is 10-4 overall, and 1-1 in the Pac-12 after an opening split against Oregon and Oregon State.

“We are the second-youngest team in America, so a lot of these guys haven’t experienced anything like this,” said Krystkowiak, referencing KenPom’s experience metric, which rates Utah second-to-last in the country, ahead of only ninth-ranked Memphis. “The only way you gain experience is to go through experiences like this. I give them a lot of credit for being able to stay in the moment, get back in the game. It takes smarts and all those types of things, and this is a process.”

UTAH AT COLORADO

When • Sunday, 4 p.m. MST

TV • Pac-12 Network

As one might expect, Krystkowiak’s youth movement is not without its speed bumps. Utah has two Quadrant 3 losses, one a true road game to Coastal Carolina, the other a neutral-site defeat to Tulane, a game the Utes coughed up at the end. The Chanticleers outclassed Utah, as did San Diego State on Dec. 21, but in fairness, the Aztecs are Final Four-caliber and after winning at Utah State on Saturday night, may not lose a regular-season game.

“We haven’t been through all the wars like Oregon and Oregon State,” freshman point guard Rylan Jones said after the Oregon loss. “We’re just going out there, trying to have fun. We’re going to take every game as a stepping stone and we’re going to keep getting better every day.”

“We have to have the experiences to capitalize on our next opportunities.”

Utah has already capitalized on some, more so than any rational observer projected them too. An opening-night win at Nevada, a November win over Minnesota, an early-December win over BYU, the neutral-floor win over then-No. 6 Kentucky. That’s a nice cluster of victories for a young team, the win over the Wildcats standing as an example of what Utah’s A-game is capable of.

For resume purposes, the BYU and Minnesota wins are Quadrant 2 wins, but are sniffing around Quadrant 1 territory. The Kentucky victory is Quadrant 1, and figures to stay there for the duration. Utah’s win over Oregon State, one of its best efforts of the last month, especially in the second half, is Quad 3, approaching Quad 2. Utah is 1-2 against Quad 1s and 3-0 against Quad 2s.

Has Utah dropped some tough games early? Yes. Is its resume respectable anyway, given the inexperience and the challenging schedule Krystkowiak and assistant coach Andy Hill put together? The Utes’ NET through Sunday’s games was a season-best 47, so the answer there is also, yes.

If you believe the process of molding all this youth has been expedited because of the key wins, especially Kentucky, then the next few weeks should be quite telling. Utah has Quadrant 1 opportunities on deck at Colorado on Sunday, at Arizona on Jan. 16, and Arizona State on Jan. 18.

That row of games may help decide how seriously to take Utah in terms of postseason chances, whether it be the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

“You won’t ever hear me evaluating where we are, because I’m always about the next practice and fixing what’s broken right now, continuing to do the things that we do well, and we can talk about that in the spring when we can do a grade and I’ll tell you what I think,” Krystkowiak said. “Talking about the process, it’s counterproductive, counterintuitive to be talking about where we are right now. This is definitely a process. Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and we’re going to do whatever we can to get there.”

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