Six days ago, the University of Utah men’s basketball team walked into an empty 15,000-seat Huntsman Center and embraced it.
The Utes, coming off a COVID-19 outbreak and looking sluggish for the first few minutes, overwhelmed the University of Washington to serve early notice that they intend to take a step forward in the Pac-12 this winter.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Utes walked into an empty Huntsman Center and offered a mixed bag. They were sluggish again at the start, this time against Idaho State. Utah played well enough to win, but only played well in spurts. Six players scored in double figures and the outcome was never in doubt, but they were outrebounded to the tune of minus-17 and yielded 22 second-chance points in a 75-59 win over the Bengals, who took home a $45,000 guarantee check for their troubles.
One may argue that any lack of energy at the outset could be contributed to the atmosphere, which is, to be fair, a little weird. There is no crowd, the upper deck is curtained off, ambient noise was pumped in during play, and only players, coaches, officials, media and other essential personnel milled about.
Larry Krystkowiak, though, wasn’t really up for making excuses having to do with an empty building.
“This is not a season to be talking about lack of crowds, because this is something consistent with both teams, both teams have to deal with it,” the Utes head coach said. “I’m a believer that a lot of this will come down to intrinsic characteristics and having enough pride that you don’t care who’s in the building. If you’re a player that depends on a lot of extrinsic benefits of playing college basketball with crowds cheering for you, this might not be the year for you.”
The rebounding needs cleaning up, but the good outweighed the bad on Tuesday. The Utes defended, specifically in the halfcourt. They got deflections, which led to run-outs in transition, which led to layups.
Freshman combo guard Pelle Larsson continues to be an early revelation, looking comfortable on both ends of the floor, but particularly on offense where, for the second game in a row, his steady hand helped smooth things out after a rough start. The Swedish national finished with a team-high 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting.
Sophomore point guard Rylan Jones, meanwhile, confidently knocked down jumpers from all over the gym in finishing with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and five assists.
“We came in today prepared to defend and to try to outlast their offense, which is a little slow,” said Jones, who was responsible for five of Utah’s 10 steals. “A lot of our defense led to easy offense, and that worked well for us today.”
A 17-2 run to end the first half proved decisive. A straightaway 3-pointer from sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen (10 points, four rebounds) was followed by Larsson breaking out in transition for a layup off a bounce pass on the move from Riley Battin to put Utah ahead, 32-18, with 2:00 to play in the half.
Jones added a pair of buckets late in the run, the second off another transition layup after he picked Bengals guard Malik Porter’s pocket near midcourt. Timmy Allen’s midrange jumper capped the run to give Utah a 41-20 halftime lead.
“I think we’re still finding an identity and finding some comfort in it,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s a process and it’s like anything. You can’t speed the clock up, you can’t gain experience just because you want it. Our guys need to be in position, playing against some new guys, seeing some different things.”
The level of competition, not to mention energy, is likely to get kicked up Saturday when Utah faces BYU for the 261st time in what is one of the nation’s sorely underrated college basketball rivalries.
Unless Utah is going to add another nonconference game against a quality opponent, Saturday’s trip to Provo represents the Utes’ best chance at a signature nonconference win for NCAA Tournament resume purposes. With a KenPom ranking of 87 through Tuesday evening, BYU is by far the highest-rated nonconference opponent on Utah’s schedule.