Let’s get one thing straight: Utah was not a bad team this season. While no one expected Utah to be bad — the team was picked to finish third in the conference prior to season’s start — the Utes were supposed to take a step back without former leader Delon Wright.
But instead, the Utes finished the year with a 27-8 record — one win better than last season’s Sweet 16 squad — and finished second in the Pac-12, also better than last year’s Wright-led team. They had a conference Player of the Year in Jakob Poeltl, beat Arizona for the first time since joining the Pac-12 and earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was almost an overachieving season for the Utes, yet in the Round of 32, against No. 11 Gonzaga, they looked like the inferior team in the matchup, while the Zags went on to dominate in their 82-59 win. The same could be said in the Pac-12 Championship Game when going up against Oregon. Sure, the Ducks are one of the best teams in the nation, but there’s one overlying theme here — Utah doesn’t show up for big games.
Some might point to the win over Arizona earlier this season and say, “Hey, that was a big game, right?” Yes, it was, but there wasn’t all that much at stake. You can nitpick some of the details, such as conference standings and improving resumes, but the point is that Utah still had games left before things really mattered in postseason tournaments.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak LOVES the Pac-12 Tournament. He has said it over and over and over again, calling it the only sure way to earn a way into the Big Dance. Yet, when the Utes had a prime opportunity to show the nation what they’re made of against the talented Ducks, they got blown out 88-57.
Now, just a week later in Denver, Utah had the opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, but with the season on the line, it was blown out again by the 11th seed in the Midwest Region (though I don’t think anyone who knows college basketball would consider the Bulldogs your typical 11-seed).
In those two games, the Utes were outscored by 31 and 23 points, respectively. Maybe this speaks to the actual strength, or lack thereof, of the Pac-12, who had five higher-seeded teams fall in the Round of 64, setting a new record. Now the second-best team in the conference gets blown out by a team from the WCC, and the Pac-12, who landed seven teams in the tournament, looks weaker and weaker by the day, with only Oregon remaining.
Again, Utah is not a bad team — not even close. But teams that want to be GREAT show up in big games, and this team did not down the stretch of the season.
Do I think this team wanted to win Saturday night’s game? Absolutely. That was evident when senior Brandon Taylor, who has helped revive this Utah basketball program — and it’s a shame his career ended in the way it did — walked out onto the podium after the game with tears in his eyes. He didn’t want his season to end, but for some reason, this team failed to put it into an extra gear when the big prize is on the line.
But in order to make the step from just a conference contender to a Pac-12 leader in future seasons, Krystkowiak needs to figure out how to get his team ready for big games. And without Taylor, the rest of the seniors and the expected departure of Poeltl with the conclusion of the campaign, that task is easier said than done.