Utah football kicked the year off good
But play has improved on the hardwood
This season’s already quite a beaut
You have got to love the Runnin’ Utes!
COMMENTARY — At 13-2, Utah is off to its best start this century. The last time the Runnin’ Utes started 13-2 was the 1998-99 season when Utah won the conference title in its last year in the Western Athletic Conference and ended up going 27-3 for the year. That’s right — that was two conferences and three coaches ago.
The Runnin’ Utes are not only one of the best teams in the Pac-12, but they are one of the best teams in the nation having been ranked since the first preseason poll, and currently claiming a spot in the top 10 for the third straight week.
After just a little over one week into conference play, Utah has already started to separate itself from the rest of the pack. No other team (including Arizona) has managed to play three conference games without losing at least one of them.
And it’s not just the fact that they are winning, but how they are winning. This week’s gee whiz fact is 27.0 — the average scoring margin of the Runnin’ Utes in their first three conference victories. Arizona is second in the Pac-12 with a 13.3 average scoring margin, and Stanford checks in at 6.0 for a distant third.
One of my favorite barometers of how well a game is going is how early walk-on senior Austin Eastman, from Billings, Mont., steps onto the court. As the second half of games wind down, the MUSS is not shy about chanting “We want Austin.” Austin has played in all three conference games thus far. At times it is hard to tell who is cheering louder for Austin to shoot the ball, and then celebrating any made shot — the MUSS, or the other players on Utah’s bench. This is truly a team in all respects and they have each other’s backs.
Last year it took the Runnin’ Utes six tries to win three conference games. The year before that it took 12. In Utah’s first year in the Pac-12, it only won three conference games all season long. Suffice it to say, the team has improved each year it has played in the Pac-12, with this year being a watershed moment in the Runnin’ Utes’ play on the hardwood reminiscent of the pre-Pac-12 glory days.
First and foremost, Utah is winning with stifling defense. Pac-12 opponents are only averaging 47.7 points a game (thus leading to the Runnin’ Utes’ large average scoring margin). The lock-down defense is an overall team effort, with lots of help defense, and the ability of virtually every player on the court to switch on a screen.
It may be premature to proclaim that Larry Krytowiak is building a dynasty on The Hill, but down the road when that becomes painfully obvious, just remember that I wasn’t afraid to say it now. The coach put it all in perspective Monday morning at his weekly press conference.
“There were years when we weren’t winning a lot of games and we were still talking about building championship habits and try to build a championship culture and that hasn’t changed,” Krystowiak said. “It’s a little bit surreal because when you look back on it, it seems like a lot of people are saying man, it’s amazing how fast things have turned around, and it just didn’t seem that fast to me when you start adding up the dates.”
He also said ideals are great, but reality is what’s most important, especially when it comes to recruiting.
“The very first thing when we were assembled as a group of coaches, and I’ll use the exact quote, I said ‘Guys, welcome, blah, blah, blah, it’s nice to be together. The first thing, we’re not going to recruit any turds.’ That’s what I said.”
This week the rubber really hits the road for Utah as it embarks upon its first conference road trip. Both games will be played in the Grand Canyon State.
“The margin of error, I think, when you go on the road, is smaller,” Krystowiak said. “Momentum, things can get away from you. We need to continue to push the basketball and focus on getting stops and running. That’s when the game has been easiest for us at home, and can we continue to do that on the road is going to be a challenge.”
First up is Arizona State on Thursday. The Sun Devils are currently wallowing in the Pac-12 cellar as one of the conference’s defeated teams (i.e., winless thus far in conference play). I know Krystowiak is always preaching the “one game at a time” mentality, but the reality is that it will be hard for the Runnin’ Utes to not look past Arizona State to the match-up with Arizona two days later.
“With a short turnaround playing an afternoon game on Saturday, you can’t not talk about Arizona at some point and build some of those things into our practice so we’re not dodging it completely,” Krystowiak said.
The showdown with the Wildcats on Saturday will feature two of the best teams in the Pac-12 by a country mile. Arizona will still be smarting from its recent road loss to Oregon State and the fact that the Runnin’ Utes leapfrogged the Wildcats in this week’s poll. Utah will have an opportunity to prove it is an elite team worthy of its top 10 ranking with a quality road win. There is a lot on the line for such an early game in conference play, and this should prove to be a great game.
Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes keep on running away from the competition in Pac-12 play.
Dwayne Vance is a columnist covering the Utah Utes. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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