If you are what your record says you are, then the University of Utah basketball program is middling as college basketball’s regular season heads into its stretch run.
Ahead of a late-Thursday afternoon tilt at Cal, the Utes are 8-7 overall and 5-6 in the Pac-12. The conference mark has Utah as not only a middle-tier Pac-12 team, but more towards the bottom of the middle tier. With seven scheduled regular-season games to play, plus the possibility of two COVID-related makeup games vs. Arizona State, Utah’s overall record and resume have it nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Those are all facts, but none of it takes any nuance into account when attempting to judge this Utah team through 15 games. That amount of time should be perfectly sufficient to come to some conclusions about a given team, but Utah has shown multiple versions of itself in those 15 games, making it difficult to offer a determination as to who these Utes are.
On one hand, winners of three of four and four of six, Utah is playing well at the moment, maybe even playing its best basketball of the season. Of those four wins, the Utes overwhelmed NCAA Tournament-caliber teams in Stanford and Arizona, plus registered a 19-point second half comeback for a victory at another program with visions of March Madness, Colorado.
On the other hand, one of the losses in that six-game stretch is a 72-63 home loss to lowly Cal, a game in which Utah led by 12 at halftime, then yielded a 50-point second half. The other is a loss at bottom-tier Washington in which the Utes staved off the Huskies for 38 minutes, only to have three late turnovers all turn into points and do them in, 83-79.
UTAH AT CALIFORNIA
When • Thursday, 4 p.m. MT
TV • Pac-12 Network
Utah may be playing well right now, but the losses are still what stick out. Cal hasn’t won a game since that Jan. 16 win at the Huntsman Center, while Washington is battling the Golden Bears for control of the Pac-12 basement. A one-possession loss at UCLA on New Year’s Eve in which Utah led by 12 early. A 10-point halftime lead at home vs. Oregon turned into a six-point loss, another 10-point halftime lead two nights later vs. Colorado became a seven-point loss.
“We didn’t close the Cal game out and then you can go back to Oregon, Colorado, UCLA,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the Arizona win. “All of those games were right down to the wire, too, so it hasn’t really been the sting of one loss, I think it’s been knowing we can play better basketball.”
Utah is an inconsistent basketball team. On any given night, it can beat a quality Pac-12 team, cough up a lead against a quality Pac-12 team, or play down to a lesser Pac-12 team.
If the Utes had closed out Cal and Washington, the season starts to look a little different. If the Utes had closed out even one of those 10-point halftime leads vs. Oregon or Colorado, postseason possibilities may be fairly bandied about at this point.
“The wins don’t make the losses harder, but it shows we could beat those teams,” sophomore center Branden Carlson said. “We had it, we were there the whole game. Every loss is hard, but if we could have done a few things differently, taking care of the ball, made a few more shots, got a few more defensive rebounds, it would have been a different ballgame. We have to learn from it and move to the next one.”
Krystkowiak has been adamant of late that his players have done a good job of doing what Carlson said, learning from the failures and moving forward.
With Utah now operating from a position of prosperity, it will be interesting to see which version of itself shows up at Haas Pavilion on Thursday. Keep in mind that in that Jan. 16 loss to Cal, the Golden Bears were without their leading scorer, Matt Bradley. In two games since returning to the lineup from an ankle injury, the All-Pac-12 junior guard has scored 39 points on 11-for-25 shooting and 7-for-14 from 3-point range.
“This is not a business you want to be in, nor a sport you want to play where frustration can be any part of it,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re in control of a lot of the things to avoid frustration and that’s where our guys, I think they’ve really rallied around that concept.”