The Utah Utes entered the Pac-12 tournament with a 13-17 overall record, and as the ten-seed Larry Krystkowiak’s team wasn’t expected by many who follow the league to hang around Las Vegas for too long.
But after wins over USC and California (beating the Golden Bears 79-69 in overtime), Utah is now in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and finds itself 80 minutes away from an improbable NCAA tournament trip.
The NCAA tournament shouldn’t be the concern because there’s plenty of business to be taken care of, but these two wins represent tangible rewards for a program that’s shown itself to be far more competitive in its second season in the Pac-12.
Jarred DuBois’ three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Cal big man David Kravish with four seconds remaining in regulation tied Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup at 59 apiece, and in the extra session Utah outscored the Golden Bears 20-10.
DuBois, playing his lone season in Salt Lake City after transferring in from Loyola Marymount, finished with 21 points, freshman Jordan Loveridge added 20 and senior center Jason Washburn 18 to lead the way offensively. Utah’s balance proved to be the difference against the Golden Bears, who had no other double-digit scorers to supplement the points provided by Justin Cobbs (26 points) and Allen Crabbe (21).
Nearly a month ago the Utes dropped a 68-64 decision at home to then-No. 9 Arizona, and even in defeat the progress made under Krystkowiak has been evident to many. The conference win total isn’t impressive (5-13 Pac-12 record) but these Utes are light years better than the group that looked overmatched in their debut season in the conference.
DuBois and Washburn are both seniors, meaning that Krystkowiak and his staff have some holes to fill in the offseason. But in Loveridge and freshman guard Brandon Taylor the Utes have two young players they can build around in the near future.
“I trust that these guys aren’t going to get satisfied. They’re going to continue to improve. It’s really nice,” said Krystkowiak after the game.
“I think not just Jordan, but there were some moments at the game, actually in the middle of live action, that I looked out there and we had four freshmen on the court. So the kids are continuing to get better as this year’s gone along.”
If they’re to be successful against Oregon the Utes have to do a better job on the glass, as they were out-rebounded 40-30 by the Golden Bears with Cal grabbing 15 offensive rebounds. But the fact that Utah is playing on Friday night speaks to the fact that the small steps taken in the right direction are beginning to produce tangible results.
“At this point in the season, our guys have learned all the lessons that you can learn, and we’re putting some things together where we’re not overly deficient in any one area, and that’s given us a chance to compete,” noted Krystkowiak.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.