To an extent, Larry Krystkowiak is correct. Every game has its own story, so here is the University of Utah men’s basketball team’s story after taking the Pac-12 Los Angeles swing over the long holiday weekend.
The Utes led at UCLA on New Year’s Eve inside six minutes left, played to a one-possession advantage either way for the remainder of the game, and ultimately fell, 72-70. On Saturday at USC, Utah was down 16 early, but took a 1-point lead late in the first half. Its defense made up for a horrid shooting day, but a close game got out of hand with about eight minutes left, the Utes losing, 64-46.
Utah went 0-9 in Pac-12 road games last season. Of those nine, it looked completely overwhelmed in probably six of them. The Utes did not look overwhelmed at UCLA, and did a nice job of not letting USC’s early outburst dictate the entirety of the game. The optimistic viewpoint out of Utah’s trip to Southern California is that it played better on the road than it showed most of last season.
The realistic viewpoint is that Utah, whose roster is collectively a year older but, in fairness, still quite young, still cannot win on the road. Saturday’s loss at the Galen Center made it 11 straight Pac-12 road losses dating back to a Feb. 23, 2019 win at Washington State, and 11 straight losses away from the Huntsman Center dating back to a 69-66 win over then-No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas.
Furthermore, not only did Utah lose two road games, but to classify them as true road games might be a stretch. With the Pac-12 not allowing fans in basketball arenas due to the COVID-19 pandemic, home-crowd advantages and general troubles generated by road atmospheres are not going to be a factor.
Losing two games inside what could be likened to a neutral-court situation is worse than losing two true road games. Utah getting swept out of L.A. on essentially two neutral courts was worse than your average normal road swing.
“We’re competitive, there’s probably less home-court advantage overall for everybody,” Krystkowiak said postgame late Saturday afternoon. “We’ve got a different team with a different spirit. Each game tells a different story, but I’m confident we’re going to be fine as long as everyone keeps working and staying together.”
In Utah’s defense, having 13 days between games did not help the cause. The Utes hosted the University of Idaho on Dec. 18. Two days later, a game at Arizona State was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within Utah’s program. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that it turned out to be a false positive, but no matter. The game was off and players were given a few days of no practice to recharge.
Practice picked back up Dec. 26, and while five days of practice before UCLA was a lot, 13 days between games likely outweighs that.
So, now what? Utah is 4-3 overall, 1-2 in the Pac-12 and without a viable postseason resume, although it is very early to be worrying about Bracketology.
Beginning Wednesday vs. Oregon State (9 p.m., ESPNU), the Utes have four home games across 10 days. Given what went on over the weekend, given where the program is within the Pac-12, given where the program is in general, it would be wise to make hay at home. For what it’s worth, Utah is 16-2 at the Huntsman Center since the start of last season, including 7-2 vs. Pac-12 teams last season.
That home record might not mean anything this season given the aforementioned neutral-site component to the Pac-12 this season, but that’s a topic for another day.