In case anyone was wondering, Larry Krystkowiak is definitely paying attention to what outside voices have to say about his basketball program, but more specifically, about his players.
The 10th-year University of Utah head coach was presumably talking about social media, given that is where much of the vitriol sits, especially lately as the Utes have made a habit of blowing double-digit halftime leads and losing Pac-12 games they were in position to win.
Before winning at Washington State late Thursday night, 71-56, Utah’s most-recent collapse came Saturday against Cal as it took a 12-point lead to the locker room, then gave up 50-second half points in losing, 72-63. In that one, Rylan Jones shot 0-for-6 from the floor, went scoreless and had just one assist in 26 minutes.
Predictably after a brutal loss when the high-profile point guard played poorly, outside calls came for Jones to sit, or at least play a lesser role.
Krystkowiak is paying attention.
“People are hard on our student-athletes, and I don’t think they understand, we’re not pros where they’re subject to getting ripped apart because they’re not living up to somebody’s expectations,” Krystkowiak said Thursday after snapping a 14-game Pac-12 road losing streak. “This isn’t an easy deal for a lot of kids, especially with what’s going on COVID-wise and some of the disruptions, so I’m just worn out by some of the negativity that goes on. I think his ability and others’ ability to rise above it from some knuckleheads in the cheap seats wanting to analyze things.”
Off the Cal loss, Krystkowiak gave everyone Sunday off, then met with Jones on Monday. Neither Krystkowiak, nor Jones volunteered details of that sitdown, but both indicated that it was a good, productive talk. Whatever went on there, Jones was certainly up Thursday’s game.
The sophomore was excellent at Beasley Coliseum. He registered 10 assists against just two turnovers, quarterbacking the action all night. Jones might not have been the best player on the floor, but he was certainly the most effective. He spent his night on the offensive end bludgeoning the Cougars in pick-and-roll situations, many of those ending up with Branden Carlson layups and dunks at the rim.
On one particular first-half sequence after Utah (6-6, 3-5 Pac-12) had already assumed full control, Carlson set a screen for Jones just outside the right elbow. Jones showed great patience in allowing the play to develop, eventually splitting two defenders with a bounce pass to Carlson, who rolled to the rim beautifully for an easy layup.
“We care about winning, we care about each other, and we just want to win,” said Jones, whose 10 assists marked the second double-digit assist effort of his career. “We came in this week with a focus to come up to Washington State to get our first road win. We’re going to keep that focus as we go to Seattle and head into the next game Sunday.”
Jones’ defense on Thursday night will go under the radar, but he had to expend a lot of energy in helping defend Isaac Bonton. The high-scoring Washington State senior guard was blanketed all night by Jones, among other Utes. Allowing a catch to Bonton was a rarity and when he did have the ball, finding a clean look was difficult. He finished with four points on just 1-for-8 shooting to go along with four turnovers.
“Maybe if you’re not seeing shots go down, you hang your head, and I think it speaks volumes on Rylan’s ability to defend and run the club at the same time,” Krystkowiak said.
Utah heads to Seattle to face Washington on Sunday (2 p.m., ESPNU). The Utes defeated the Huskies, 76-62, on Dec. 3 with Jones playing solidly with six points, five assists and three rebounds, but also three turnovers in 32 minutes.