By the time the Pac-12 tournament was canceled March 12, the University of Utah men’s basketball team’s season was already over.
The Utes lost to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament the day before, and while an NIT berth was still on the table, COVID-19 saw to it that no one would be playing basketball for a while.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak and his team stayed the night in Las Vegas on March 12, then boarded a commercial flight home to Salt Lake City the following morning. School officials had already announced classes were canceled for March 16 and 17, with most going online beginning March 18. There was a team meeting and meetings with academic support staff on March 16.
Academics aside, the primary concern at that point became the safety of the players, many of whom are from outside the state of Utah.
“We’re getting some great direction from President [Ruth] Watkins and (athletic director) Mark (Harlan) is doing a terrific job as things change and things continue to happen,” Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune in a wide-ranging interview late last week. “We got to Monday, and we thought it was in our best interest that we try to get our guys home to be with their families.
“Our focus was just getting everyone dialed in academically and making sure everyone got home safe.”
Krystkowiak has six players from the state of Utah, including his son, Luc. Another eight are spread across various states, and three others are from outside the United States. Everyone is accounted for, including the three internationals.
Senegalese redshirt freshman center Lahat Thioune is staying with the same host family he stayed with during his high school days at Florida Prep, while Puerto Rico native Alfonso Plummer is staying with Brendan Wenzel in his hometown of San Antonio. Mikael Jantunen was able to fly home to his native Finland, but is under a 14-day quarantine, according to Krystkowiak.
Basketball is not a chief concern right now, but Krystkowiak noted it would be helpful if guys found a way to get some work in despite not being on campus for the foreseeable future. Of course, that might not be easy given gyms, fitness centers and the like are largely closed.
That fact gave Krystkowiak, who played nine seasons in the NBA, the opportunity to make a point to his players during that March 16 team meeting.
“I mentioned this in meeting with our guys, that if you have your heart set on being sharper and becoming a better player, you can get it done even in the middle of a prison sentence,” Krystkowiak said. “The reality is everyone thinks you need the fancy facilities, but everybody around the country is dealing with the same circumstances.
“I feel bad for our guys, but I feel a heck of a lot worse for guys like Sam Merrill, Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws. Those guys invested a lot over four years, and we’d be watching them right now in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, that’s not taking place.”