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Utah basketball offered a flicker of hope, but that’s over as maddeningly inconsistent season comes down the stretch

Seven of Utes’ 10 Pac-12 losses have come by a combined 33 points this season

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Riley Battin (21) tried to get a shot off, as UCLA Bruins guard Johnny Juzang (3) and UCLA Bruins guard Jaylen Clark (0) defend, in PAC-12 basketball action at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

There was a 12-day period, beginning Jan. 30 and ending Feb. 12, where it looked like, maybe, this University of Utah of Utah men’s basketball season had finally turned in a positive direction.

The Utes found some magic at Colorado, riding Alfonso Plummer’s 23-point second half to come from 19 down to beat the NCAA Tournament-bound Buffaloes. They outclassed Arizona five days later at the Huntsman Center, and after a week off, controlled Cal in Berkeley for 39 minutes before winning a game they tried to give away at the end.

No matter, though, because that made three wins in a row to get Utah to 9-7 overall and 6-6 in the Pac-12. The NCAA Tournament wasn’t on the radar, but there was more momentum than at any previous point of the season and if everyone stayed healthy, why couldn’t a late-season charge be in the cards?

That’s all over now. Utah has now lost four-straight games, the latest to league-leading UCLA, 76-61, in which the Bruins got any and every open shot it wanted, whether they worked their way around the perimeter or planted themselves in the lane. UCLA put on an offensive clinic at the Huntsman Center and as coach Larry Krystkowiak indicated postgame, his team’s defensive intensity was not at nearly a high-enough level given the opponent.

Forget for just a moment that things are not likely to get any easier with USC, a league-title contender buoyed by freshman phenom and Pac-12 Player of the Year favorite Evan Mobley, coming to the Huntsman Center on Saturday night.

Utah’s season to date, all 20 games worth, has been a confounding exercise in inconsistency. Across three January days, the Utes led both Oregon and Colorado by 10 at halftime, but lost both games by single digits. They also managed to blow a 12-point halftime lead at home to Cal by giving up 50 second-half points in a nine-point loss.

All told, seven of Utah’s 10 conference losses have come by a combined 33 points. It is just 8-5 when leading at halftime, and 3-7 in games decided by single digits. The fact the Utes have wins over Stanford, Colorado, and Arizona only leads to the maddening notion that this season, while not yet complete, could have been something much more for a group that is still very heavy with underclassmen.

“There’s no question about the woulda-coulda-shouldas, but I also need to be realistic,” Krystkowiak said on a Zoom call Friday afternoon after USC’s visit. “We have certainly competed against everybody. We’ve had some shining moments and some not-very-proud moments, but I’m not going to lose sight of the fact that we’re a young team.”

UTAH VS. USC

At the Huntsman Center

When • Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV • ESPN2

Yes, Krystkowiak’s team is still on the young side, ranking just 286th nationally in experience according to KenPom.com, but a lot of that youth has played a ton. Assuming good health the rest of the way, Branden Carlson will close his sophomore season with 54 or 55 career games. Rylan Jones and Alfonso Plummer will be approaching 50, while juniors Timmy Allen and Riley Battin have already cracked 80 as their junior seasons wind down.

At some point, youth needs to stop being an excuse, but Krystkowiak on Friday made an interesting comparison. In discussing this team, he referenced his 2013-14 squad. That team, much like this one, infamously couldn’t close games. Seven of that 2014 team’s nine Pac-12 losses came by a combined 20 points, That doesn’t include an early-season two-point loss at a good Boise State team.

That Utah team is not this Utah team, because that Utah team managed to win 21 games and grab an NIT nod, but that’s not really the point. The point Krystkowiak sought to make was that the 2014 team went through the wringer and came out better for it.

In 2015, with Delon Wright, Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Dakari Tucker all back, plus the emergence of freshman Jakob Poeltl, Utah won 26 games, advanced to the Sweet 16, and registered a margin of victory of 14.2 points per contest. That margin of victory is monstrous and, frankly, indicates there was a level of dominance to those Utes.

This is Krystkowiak’s hope, that his current team can learn from what it’s been through and be better off. Utah is slated to bring back nearly everyone from this team in 2021-22, though transfers or other departures could alter that. One key decision will be sharpshooting senior guard Alfonso Plummer, who has the option to return after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plummer indicated to The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month that he has not made up his mind on his future.

“I’m very much present with the mishaps and what we need to get better in this year, but we also need to be a little bit realistic and pragmatic about the whole situation,” Krystkowiak said. “Experience helps you win close games and you look at some of those close games we’re talking about with the Oregons and the Colorados, those are veteran-type teams that made plays when they had to down the stretch.

“I would like to believe that some of the experience our young players are garnering right now is going to be able to pay off for us. I’d love to win more of them this year, but it’s part of the process.”

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