Playing with a chip on their shoulder worked out well for the Runnin’ Utes this year.
Prior to the start of the season, the University of Utah men’s basketball team was picked finishing eighth in the Pac-12. The program said goodbye to a few starters, and most notably big man Jakob Poeltl left for the NBA. While the team understood why it received that ranking, it still wanted to prove the doubters wrong, and it did.
With the Pac-12 Tournament starting this Wednesday, the Utes secured the No. 4 seed. They have also secured a bye, so they do not have to compete on that first day of competition. It was one of the goals the Utes set for themselves ahead of the season, and although getting there wasn’t necessarily a piece of cake, head coach Larry Krystkowiak wishes he could have a few of those close losses back, but they did just enough in the end.
Utah will either face Cal or Oregon State in the second round of the tournament. The Utes recently throttled Cal by 30 points, but Krystkowiak isn’t banking on the Bears making it out of the first round because once it’s March, anything can happen.
“It’s a survival of the fittest time of year,” Krystkowiak said. “Every team is going to be going through the same dynamic.”
If the Utes happen to square off against Oregon State, that itself may end up posing more problems than a matchup with the higher seeded Bears.
Krystkowiak did not like the way his team performed against the Beavers this season. When the Utes hosted them at the Huntsman Center, it was a fairly sloppy game, and the Utes barely escaped with a win. Then on the road in Corvallis, the Utes couldn’t step up to the plate as OSU earned its first Pac-12 win of the season.
So while the Utes don’t know who they will be squaring off against until Wednesday afternoon, they also don’t know if they’ll have a couple of their own players in their arsenal.
In Utah’s final regular season game against Stanford, junior David Collette took a hard hit, and he fell to the floor. It took him a few minutes to get up, and he immediately retreated to the locker room. This isn’t the first time Collette has sustained a head injury as he sat out a week midway through the season because of a concussion.
Krystkowiak said Collette is feeling better, but he has to make sure he has no headaches and he goes through the appropriate concussion protocol. Krystkowiak isn’t even sure when he will be ready to practice, so his status is up in the air.
Freshman Devon Daniels is still indefinitely suspended from the team, but if he does become eligible the Utah Athletics Department will release a statement. Krystkowiak has been able to sit down with Daniels and talk some things through, and he thinks he is headed on the right track, but nothing has been set in stone.
The Utes understand that winning the tournament will likely be their only ticket to the NCAA Tournament, so it’s not a time to make excuses, but junior Kyle Kuzma thinks everyone is on the same page.
“Everything is do or die right now, and I’m pretty sure all of our guys know that,” Kuzma said.