We weren’t that far away. —Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak
SALT LAKE CITY — A period of self-evaluation followed Utah’s season-ending losses to California in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals and to Boise State in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.
“It wasn’t a fun couple of weeks,” acknowledged head coach Larry Krystkowiak, who asked his staff and the players to join him in individually reflecting on things. “It wasn’t an easy year. It was up and down. It’s kind of bittersweet because there were some positive things that happened and some things that got away from us.”
The Utes finished 20-12 overall and 11-7 in Pac-12 play. They finished fourth in the conference — behind top-10 teams Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — to earn the final first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Despite reaching the 20-win plateau for the fourth straight season and posting a winning Pac-12 record for the third straight year, Krystkowiak would have liked to have won more games.
“We weren’t that far away,” he said.
Utah had several close setbacks. They include an 83-82 loss to fourth-ranked UCLA, a 73-67 shortcoming against No. 10 Oregon and a 77-75 double-overtime defeat at California.
Then there was the surprising 68-67 falter at last-place Oregon State on Feb. 19.
During non-conference action, the Utes dropped single-digit decisions to Butler and Xavier before transfers David Collette (Utah State) and Sedrick Barefield (SMU) were eligible to participate because of NCAA rules.
After the duo joined the team, an injury to leading scorer and rebounder Kyle Kuzma led to a loss to San Francisco in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
Some games, though, weren’t the only thing that Krystkowiak feels the program let get away in 2016-17. He speaks openly of a need to get back culture concepts that were established in his first five campaigns at the helm.
“That was one of the things that I took away from the season — you get a culture that’s driven and guys get it,” Krystkowiak said. “You’ve got a lot of players that are buying into it and then you lose three seniors (Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Dakarai Tucker) and you lose Jakob (Poeltl) and you’ve got new guys coming in, and I probably got away from some of that culture definition and team-building stuff.”
Krystkowiak said that he spent a lot more time trying to figure out how to put the pieces together on the court. That, he admits, proved to be a lesson for him.
“I kind of got what I deserved in terms of forgetting about some of the core things that I believe in and I’ve always talked about in our program that we’re not negotiable,” Krystkowiak said.
The areas of emphasis, he said, include getting to classes on time; being here and taking care of your business; and treating people right.
“I think some of those things got away from us and we lost some of our accountability, and it led, maybe, to some of those losses,” Krystkowiak said. “It was a long year. It was hard, harder than it should have been to win 20 games.”
Utah Utes guard Lorenzo Bonam (15) drives on California Golden Bears forward Roger Moute A Bidias (12) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 2, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A late seven-day stretch epitomized it. After handing Cal a 74-44 setback in the Huntsman Center, the teams met again one week later at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Golden Bears prevailed 78-75 to knock the Utes out of the Pac-12 tourney.
The turnabout followed what Krystkowiak said was probably Utah’s best game of the year.
“It’s hard to turn around in a week and do it again,” he said. “We didn’t make enough plays. We lost a close game. So that was rough. That was a tough way to end because you want to keep playing.”
Same goes for the NIT. Krystkowiak really wanted the Utes to make it to New York. A 73-68 loss to Boise State put an end to that hope.
“It was almost like a microcosm of our whole year. We had some defensive breakdowns because we didn’t pay attention to detail to give up threes and then we made ill-advised passes,” said Krystkowiak, who added that someone went off to score 10-12 points while being defended well. In this case, it was Chandler Hutchinson, who wound up with 34 points for the Broncos.
“It was just better offense. Give him credit,” Krystkowiak said. “Their team made enough plays.”
Krystkowiak summarized that the “perfect storm” was not a fun way to end the season.
“I’ve always wanted to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and obviously we lost our last couple of games,” he said. “So that’s not appealing to me that we weren’t able to get that done.”
Utah Utes guard Devon Daniels (3) and teammates leave the court after Boise State beat the Utes 73-68 in the first round of the NIT at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
At season’s end, changes were made. Freshman Devon Daniels was suspended for three games late in the year for conduct detrimental to the team, and junior college transfer JoJo Zamora was dismissed from the squad.
“This was a decision that I made,” Krystkowiak said. “It wasn’t a decision they made.”
Krystkowiak noted that the departing players are good guys and may do fine someplace else.
The Utes, meanwhile, have regrouped and continue the mindset of always grinding.
“I like what we’re doing this spring with our guys,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got a great spirit on the team, and we’re involved with some good recruits. We’re hoping that we’re going to start catching some breaks.”
Unlike last season’s major overhaul that included the graduation losses of Loveridge, Taylor and Tucker, as well as Poeltl’s departure to the NBA and the graduate transfers of Chris Reyes (Pepperdine) and Kenneth Ogbe (Utah Valley), Krystkowiak has a different vibe.
“It’s not going to feel like last year to me,” he said of the upcoming influx of newcomers.
The Utes, in fact, may be even more of a contender next season. Krystkowiak noted that a lot of teams in the Pac-12 are losing a lot of players and he’s not sure who would pass the Utes from below.
“It’s all on paper, but I like where we’re at,” he said.
Collette and Barefield are among the top returnees. The transfers made a big impact since being cleared to play in games just before Christmas. Collette averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds over 22 games, while Barefield had 35 points in his second outing and wound up averaging 9 points per outing.
“We knew they had to win appeals with the NCAA that they didn’t. I think it’s a shame they had to sit out as long as they did,” said Krystkowiak, who knew such a possibility existed going in. “So you make that bed and then you’ve got to deal with it. We were a better team, I thought, once we got those guys in the mix. No doubt about it.”
Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma (35) shoots over Oregon Ducks forward Chris Boucher (25) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The leader of the pack, however, was Kuzma. The junior forward earned first-team all-conference honors from the Pac-12 after averaging 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. He’s testing the waters about a possible jump to the NBA, although he hasn’t hired an agent and could still return to Utah for his senior season.
Krystkowiak compared Kuzma’s situation to that of Delon Wright and Poeltl. They became NBA first-round picks after opting to come back for another season of college ball following the exploration of their options a year earlier.
As was the case with the latter, Krystkowiak thinks it might be a stretch for Kuzma to turn pro without working on some things a little more.
“My personal opinion is it’s going to make a lot more sense to come back when potentially the draft isn’t as deep and he can still make improvements in his game in some different areas,” said Krystkowiak, who will support Kuzma in his decision — whatever it may be, following feedback from the NBA.
“If some of that data comes back to where he’s being projected to places that make a lot of sense, there’s not going to be anybody that pats him on the back and says ‘go get ’em’ more than I am,” Krystkowiak said.
Kuzma’s potential return is one of the reasons Krystkowiak is optimistic about next season. So, too, is Wednesday’s signing of Las Vegas-area high school star Donnie Tillman, a 6-foot-7 forward.
Krystkowiak explained that Kuzma, Tillman, Collette, Tyler Rawson, Jayce Johnson and Chris Seeley give the Utes guys that could handle the three, four and five spots.
“That might be one of the best frontcourts around,” he said.
Overall, Krystkowiak likes the core that the Utes have returning. The one and two spots include scholarship players like Barefield, Gabe Bealer and Parker Van Dyke.
“I’m pleased with it. We still have some recruiting to do,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s some holes to fill in the backcourt and hopefully we’re hot on the trail of some guys. But I’m confident.”