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For Penn State and Utah, the NIT was bigger than a consolation prize

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NEW YORK – Before stepping foot in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak had never made the final four of a tournament. Since he started as an assistant in Montana in 1998, he has always been on the outside looking in on teams playing on the last few days of the college basketball season.

So you can spare him the talk about the NIT being a consolation prize.

“It’s the time of my life, actually,” Krystkowiak said, despite his Utes losing 82-66 to Penn State in the NIT title game on Thursday. “People on the outside writing articles [about the NIT], have comments, opinions about what’s going on. They have no idea how cool this was for us.”

It was, even for the casual observer, a “cool” night at the Garden. The attendance broke 11,000, the largest since 2005, as Penn State supporters packed the stands. In previous years, there might be just three or four sections filled with fans. Thursday night, even some sections in the upper deck were full.

There was a constant stream of “We are Penn State” chants. There was a back-and-forth “Utah” and “Penn State” cheer between supporters of both sides. It sounded like a championship game. It felt like both teams genuinely wanted it.

In the end, Penn State outplayed Utah. Lamar Stevens couldn’t miss in the second half, as the Utes never responded to the Nittany Lions’ surge. After the final buzzer sounded, Penn State players did what only champions get to do: cut down the nets. And not just anywhere – at MSG, the mecca of basketball.

“Now we have something that we can always go to … to say we won something,” said Penn State guard Shep Garner. “We’re champions.”

Think this tournament didn’t matter? Ask Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers, who choked up in his postgame remarks talking about how special this win was.

“The losses never leave us and the wins are just not gratifying enough,” he said. “But this one, this one’s going to be gratifying.”

Just two teams get to call themselves “champions” at the end of the college basketball season. It is true that both Penn State and Utah only participated in the NIT because they weren’t chosen to play in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t diminish the seasons they put together.

“You want to win the game, but losing it doesn’t take away from anything,” said Utah guard Justin Bibbins, who played the final college game of his career on Thursday. “You get to come to New York with your boys.”

Krystkowiak said that he talked to a coach who had gone to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, but had also won the NIT.

“[He] said of all of his experiences, the NIT was the best experience,” Krystkowiak said.

Both Krystkowiak and Chambers said before the game that they would rather win the NIT than lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There is more experience for young players who need it, more exposure on national television and, at the end of the day, the deeper you play, the better it is — no matter the tournament.

“It’s a springboard for us,” Chambers said. “To cut down some nets, that means winning. You’re winning, you’re finding success, and that helps everything out. That helps ticket sales. That helps recruiting.”

When Penn State practiced these past few weeks, Chambers told his players that they were still competing for a championship. In the huddle, he would say, “New York.” When he sensed that his players were getting a little sluggish, he reminded them: “New York.”

“That was coach,” Garner said. “Coach told us, ‘We’re here. We’ve got to get to New York. We’ve got to win a championship in New York.’ To see that we achieved the goal we set out to get, great.”

Utah hoping that new coaching approach will lead to improved efficiency

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With the game of basketball not being one that relies on situational substitutions in a fashion similar to that of football, coaching staffs tend to focus on positions as opposed to ends of the floor. You’ll have assistants who work specifically with the guards, wings or big men, but rarely will an assistant be assigned the offense or defense.

That isn’t the case at Utah, where head coach (and part-time crime fighter) Larry Krystkowiak is using a “football-like” approach to his coaching staff with assistant Tommy Connor having the task of overseeing the offense and Andy Hill entrusted with the defense. The goal for the Utes is a simple one: to become a more efficient basketball team after ranking at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both offensive (12th) and defensive (10th) efficiency in 2012-13.

Early returns on the new line of thinking have been positive, but will the progress carry over to the regular season?

“I think it’s made us more efficient. It’s helping us in our teaching with the guys and things that we’re trying to do and I really like it,” said Krystkowiak, who explained that football got him thinking about making such a move. “There’s an awful lot going on from a head coach’s perspective with different elements and I wanted to make sure we were getting stuff done.”

Utah won four straight games before falling to Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament, and it was during that stretch that the Utes played arguably their best basketball of the season. Utah scored an average of 73 points per game in those four wins, more than 12 points better than their average in conference play (60.6 ppg).

But two of the key pieces in that late-season run, guard Jarred DuBois (12.4 ppg, 3.1 apg) and center Jason Washburn (11.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), are out of eligibility. That means even more will be demanded of sophomores Brandon Taylor (6.9 ppg, 2.0 apg) and Jordan Loveridge (12.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 apg), and City College of San Francisco transfer Delon Wright will need to be an impact player in his first season in Salt Lake City.

Will the new coaching strategy help make up for the losses of DuBois and Washburn? Utah fans hope this will be the case.

2014 PG Shaquile Carr drawing interest from UNLV, UCLA, Utah

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PHILADELPHIA–It’s fitting that 2014 guard Shaquile Carr plays for a team called the Las Vegas Prospects, as he, himself, is one whose stock is rising.

The 6-0, 155-pound guard may have some weight to add before playing high-major basketball, but he already has coaches taking note of his potential.

The Las Vegas native is picking up interest from schools that include Utah, UCLA, and UNLV.

UNLV head coach Dave Rice made the recruiting trip from Nevada to Philadelphia to watch Carr, among others.

“Now, I’m looking for a school that would let me run the point the way I want to run it,” Carr told NBCSports.com. “Working the pick and roll, stuff like that.”

Carr is an average-sized, athletic point guard with the ability to get to the rim. He has good body control around the basket, good court vision, and a dash of flash to his game, though he prides himself on being a “pass-first” player.

“I like to get my teammates involved and I like to pass more than score, really,” he says.

But at an event like the Philadelphia Jam Fest, he says, he is allowing coaches out east to get a look at him. He may even want to go far from home for school.

“Staying close to home isn’t really important,” he said. “I want to look at the east coast.”

Carr and teammate Gerad Davis have talked about attending school together. Davis is a well-built shooting guard with impressive athleticism who should end up with a frame that allows him to play at the mid-to-high major level.

If the two were a package deal, they could be a solid combination in a team’s backcourt.

Las Vegas dominated in their first two games of the Jam Fest on Saturday and moves on to play Saturday night.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

What Pac-10 divisions might look like

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As two new 12-team conferences take shape (Utah to the Pac-10 was official Wednesday), the question of the day is: What will the divisions look like?

(The real question is what’s going to happen to the names. Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big 12 better be doing some swapping right about now. But I digress.)

The Pac-10 may settle on a North-South alignment fairly quickly. Various reports indicate part of Colorado’s inclusion was to be placed with the Southern California schools (something about a large alumni base in SoCal, but I’d guess recruiting was equally important), so it’ll dictate 6-team divisions along these lines.

North                    South
Washington          USC
Washington St.    UCLA
Oregon                 Arizona
Oregon State      Arizona State
Cal                        Colorado
Stanford              Utah

That alignment figures to hurt the north a bit in terms of recruiting and could set up a scenario where one team ends up dominating the north (Oregon in football, Washington in hoops), while the south would be a little more competitive. But that’s at first glance.

Hoops-wise, are divisions even necessary? Would it make more sense to treat schedules like the Big East and vary which teams you play twice every season (not counting your natural rival, of course.) Most of this applies to football.

Maybe the Pac-10 should try a different approach.

A more interesting division breakdown was proposed by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News: Treat ’em like a zipper, That is, place natural rivals (UCLA-USC, Oregon-Oregon State) in separate divisions. Rivals would be guaranteed to play each other once a year, and go from there.

Such as: Arizona, USC, Stanford, Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado in one division; Arizona State, UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Washington and Utah in the other.

It’s hard to see that proposal catching on – I like the idea of rivals always playing each other and not having geography dictate everything, but what about bragging rights in the standings? – but it’s not a bad start.

Now, about that name…

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter, usually talkin’ hoops.