To call the University of Utah a bad basketball team would be unfair.
The Utes, who play at Washington State Thursday night (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network) and at Washington on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m., ESPNU), have played well in stretches, but that’s all it’s mostly been through 11 games, stretches.
Utah has not put together enough full 40-minute efforts, especially against the Pac-12, especially lately, which makes the Utes, not a bad basketball team, but an inconsistent one.
As cliche as it may be, the Utes have played well enough that finding even a little more consistency could go a long way toward getting them over the hump in close games.
“If we’d never played some good ball to have that feeling and that formula for what it’s like to be clicking, it might be more daunting,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We’ve experienced both, and it creates a little bit of a challenge on your psyche, with the different momentum swings within a game. The formula is there, we just need to be more consistent in following through with it over the course of a game.”
Sporting a new, defensive-minded starting lineup vs. then-No. 17 Oregon on Jan. 9, Utah held the Ducks to 36.4% shooting in the first half, took a 10-point lead into the locker room, and wound up losing by six. Two days later brought similar circumstances against Colorado, great first-half defense, consistent offense, a 10-point halftime lead, and a seven-point loss.
To Utah’s credit, it put both halves together last week in its best win of the season, 79-65, against an NCAA Tournament-caliber Stanford team, but that goodwill was washed away on Saturday. Against Cal, widely viewed as a bottom-quarter Pac-12 team at the moment, the Utes led by 12 at the half, then yielded 50 second-half points on 58.6% shooting in losing, 72-63.
UTAH AT WASHINGTON STATE
When • Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Network
The last four games, which were contested over eight days after COVID-related scheduling tweaks by the Pac-12, offered everything we need to know about Utah as it heads to the Pacific Northwest.
Some good, too much bad, not nearly enough of the former with 13 regular-season games to go ahead of the Pac-12 Tournament beginning March 10 in Las Vegas.
Before those four games, Utah (5-6, 2-5 Pac-12) also led at UCLA by 12 early on New Year’s Eve, a game it lost by two, and was within four at USC two days later with about 9 minutes to go before the Trojans ran away for an 18-point win.
“When you’re playing well, or you’re not playing well, sometimes you’re a team that just can’t quite figure out what it is that’s keeping you from being successful,” Krystkowiak said. “Our guys understand what it’s going to take to be successful. You just have to start being consistent with it.”
After the emotional loss to Cal, and given his team had just played four games in eight days, Krystkowiak gave everyone off on Sunday to, as he put it, “lick our wounds.” The Utes returned to practice Monday and Tuesday. Krystkowiak came away pleased with the effort of both sessions ahead of what are, on paper, two winnable games, even though Utah has not won a Pac-12 road game since Feb. 23, 2019, a 92-79 decision over, coincidentally, Washington State at Beasley Coliseum.
Both the Utes and Cougars ranked in the top five of the Pac-12 and in the top 80 nationally in scoring defense, which means clean looks and scoring opportunities are likely to be at a premium in Pullman.
Washington State (9-4, 2-4 Pac-12) went 7-0 against a soft non-conference schedule, but is in a comparable position to Utah, having beaten lesser conference teams in Oregon State and Cal, but has losses to upper-tier outfits in Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and USC.
“We put some film to bed, guys are mature, and we had a really good practice Monday,” Krystkowiak said. “We had a good session today [Tuesday] as well, so they just keep coming back. It’s a group with some resilience and some toughness to them, and I’ve been really blown away and proud of the guys.”