Boulder, Colo. • The University of Utah men’s basketball team had 11 days between playing 20th-ranked San Diego State on Dec. 21 and opening Pac-12 play against Oregon State on Jan. 2 and that was no accident.
Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted it that way, offering his radically-young team a short Christmas break and a chance to collect itself. The fact it offered minor injuries, namely Rylan Jones’ ribs, a chance to heal was an added bonus.
Then the team got even more time off. Utah hosted No. 4 Oregon on Jan. 4, then a scheduling quirk gave the Utes a full week before playing at No. 25 Colorado on Sunday. The Utes got trucked by 39 points against the older, experienced Buffaloes, but Krystkowiak’s bigger postgame pronouncement was that all those non-game days and all that practice time was put to good use.
“I do think that 11 days we had off prior to the league starting, these eight days, our team got better,” Krystkowiak said outside the visiting locker room at CU Events Center on Sunday evening. “We didn’t get better when we put it on the floor. We didn’t show it in this opportunity, but those days didn’t go by the wayside. This was the first of three games in six days, so those dog days where you’re trying to grind through practice and figure things out really are no longer.”
Krystkowiak’s declaration that all the time was put to good use is about to be put to the test.
With the exception of seven days between the final two games of the regular season, Feb. 29 at Cal and March 7 vs. Colorado, there are no more lengthy scheduled breaks. The Utes will have three instances of five days between games, but that’s a mirage.
Utah plays at Arizona State on Saturday and is home for Washington on Jan. 23, but those are the middle-two games of four in nine days, which begins with a trip to Arizona on Thursday and ends with hosting Washington State on Jan. 25. Similar timetables are involved with five-day gaps from Jan. 25-30 and Feb. 8-13.
“We have a lot of back-to-back deals, getting on the road to the Arizonas and now we have to take that stuff (from Sunday) and be sharper,” Krystkowiak said. “Life on the road in the Pac-12 right now is really difficult. I don’t know if some of our young guys got a sense for that with those teams (Oregon and Oregon State) coming into our building, but you get a sense of what kind of punch you’re going to get stepping into foreign territory and we’ve got to check a lot more boxes, especially when we’re on the road.”
Life on the road will take Utah (10-5, 1-2 Pac-12) to the McKale Center on Thursday for a game that will be played under interesting circumstances. The Utes are going to be coming off a one-sided rout by a Colorado team expected to contend for the Pac-12 title. How the Utes respond to that, against another league heavyweight, in presumably a hostile environment, should be telling.
From the Wildcats’ standpoint, things are not going well. They got swept at the Oregon schools over the weekend. They got outclassed at Oregon State on Sunday night. Arizona’s NET of 18 through Sunday is strong, but it has lost four of five, five of seven and is 0-4 against Quadrant 1 competition.
That’s the type of learning curve in place with Sean Miller relying heavily on three high-end freshman, including five-star point guard Nico Mannion, a projected top-15 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“It’s tough, the Arizonas is always a tough situation,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s elite crowds, the teams we’re about to play have elite point guards, elite size, it’s the same theme this week when we were talking about trying to beat Colorado.”