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Utah had another lost basketball season, but boiling it down to wins and losses is shortsighted amid a pandemic

Utes finished 12-13, its first losing season 2013, following Thursday’s double-overtime loss to USC in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Southern California in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Larry Krystkowiak is operating every day in a bottom-line business.

College basketball coaches, especially at the Power Five level, are judged on wins, losses, conference standings, whether or not they got to the postseason. More specifically, whether or not they got to the NCAA Tournament.

All of that, mind you, is in a normal season. In no way, shape, or form has this COVID-impacted season been normal, so consider this. When judging Krystkowiak and the season the University of Utah finished Thursday evening in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, there is a fine line between ultimately producing a 12-13 campaign without a postseason berth, and the toll it took on everybody involved to get to the finish line this week.

Krystkowiak has dealt with his own personal struggles throughout the pandemic. His father-in-law died in his sleep Sept. 17. His mother-in-law tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 22, then was denied admission to University of Utah hospital Sept. 29. Krystkowiak himself tested positive in November, part of a program-wide outbreak that delayed the start of its season by more than a week.

Krystkowiak’s wife, Jan, outlined the situation with her parents on her public Facebook page on Oct. 2.

Now, add on whatever COVID problems were going on in the respective personal lives of the players, most of which will never be made public. There were daily-testing protocols, stringent health-and-wellness protocols otherwise, schedule changes, the unknown on the morning of a game as to whether or not the game would actually get played, the isolation of virtual schoolwork, and the list can go on and on.

The emotional and mental charge this season took from everyone is untold, and may not be fully known for years to come, so no, boiling things down to just wins and losses isn’t going to cut it. Not in this climate.

“I think we all know how much hardship everybody has gone through this year, not just our team, but the world,” Krystkowiak said late Thursday night following Utah’s 91-85 double-overtime loss to USC, choking back tears more than once as he spoke. “I think we’re all going to remember, usually it’s a 9/11 or the JFK assassination, something pretty significant in magnitude and you always remember back to where you were when that happened. In this case, it’s been a year of memories and our guys are always going to remember what they’ve gone through.”

That is the nuance, the context necessary to understand some of the difficulties faced over the last five months to get a season played. As for the season itself, Utah had profound highs and lows. Peaks and valleys were game-to-game occurrences, optimism waned into pessimism and back again. Ultimately, this was a season that could have been more.

Double-digit halftime leads at the Huntsman Center vs. Oregon, Colorado and Cal all became losses. Utah lost at Washington in a game it was mostly controlled for 38 minutes. It failed to get over the hump at Oregon, losing by three, then had similar circumstances late in the regular season vs. Oregon State, losing by five.

Of the Utes’ 11 conference losses, eight came by a combined 43 points, an average margin of defeat of 5.4 points. That represents a problem closing out games, and here’s some more rough math.

Utah finished the regular season 11-12 overall and 8-11 in the Pac-12. If the Utes got even half of those aforementioned eight close losses, that record turns into 15-8 overall, 12-7 in the Pac-12, the conference tournament seed is different, and maybe this Utah team doesn’t get to the NCAA Tournament, but the tone of the season would have been drastically altered.

Instead, this is where Utah is, the bottom line, 12-13 and without an NCAA Tournament berth for the fifth-straight season.

“It didn’t matter whether we won or lost,” Krystkowiak said. “We had great leadership, guys were engaged, trying to get better. This season in my mind is not going to be measured on wins and losses, it’s going to be based on a brotherhood and we will remain brothers. There was no quit in us.”

By the time Krystkowiak’s postgame Zoom call wound down Thursday night, he was no longer fighting back tears. He was instead composed for a question regarding the trajectory of his program at the end of his 10th season at the helm.

The trajectory would appear to be downward. This was Utah’s first losing season since 2013. After going to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, the Utes have gone to the first round of the NIT, the NIT championship game, then no postseason for three straight years.

That’s not enough return on an annual salary approaching $4 million, but here’s the sunny side of the situation. Yes, transfers and NBA Draft declarations could be part of the next month or so, but right now, Utah is slated to return everyone in 2021-22. That includes Alfonso Plummer, who has the option for an extra year of eligibility after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock.

For what it’s worth, Krystkowiak has two years and more than $7 million in total compensation left on his contract.

“I have no questions in my mind, contrary to a lot of the noise that this is a program that is on the rise,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got a number of young players playing games, we’ve got guys that want to get in the weightroom, got a lot of high-character people. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

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