Bleeding Red: Coach K, Runnin’ Utes have generated fever pitch in SLC

Just like swallows are drawn each year to San Juan Capistrano
And return each spring in force
For fans the Huntsman Center is again the epicenter
Screaming until they are hoarse

COMMENTARY — I remember Larry Krystkowiak’s first season as the head coach of Utah. My son and I attended virtually every home game in a half-empty arena (with an average of 7,840 fans per home game, or more accurately — tickets sold, but not necessarily filled seats). The good news was that if you were facing the right direction, your cheers would echo back to you and make it sound like there were more fans in the seats.

basketball-ballrunningutes2Last Saturday night my son and I were just two fans in a capacity crowd that cheered the Runnin’ Utes to victory over Colorado to end the regular season. Only Arizona averaged more fans at their home games than the Runnin’ Utes, with about half of the conference only attracting half as many fans to their home games as Utah.

It reminds me of my days as a student when tickets to a home game were scarcely available as the likes of Tommy Connor, Walter Watts, Byron Wilson and Josh Grant took the court.

There’s a reason the Huntsman Center is regularly filled to capacity for something other than a Red Rocks gymnastics meet — the Runnin’ Utes are back, baby!

Coach Larry Krystkowiak
Coach Larry Krystkowiak

With the regular season over, and the post-season about to begin, let’s take a moment and revel in what Utah has accomplished thus far.

  • The Runnin’ Utes have posted a 13-5 conference record, tying their best record since joining the Pac-12 (they went 13-5 last year as well).
  • Utah is the second seed in the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament (they were the third seed last season).
  • The Runnin’ Utes’ sole home loss this season was to the Oregon Ducks, the Pac-12 regular season champs.
  • In a tough conference in which road wins were at a premium, Utah had a winning (5-4) record (Oregon was the only other Pac-12 team with a winning conference road record).
  • The Runnin’ Utes closed out the regular season winning seven straight games (the longest current winning streak in the Pac-12, with the Ducks next in line with five wins, and the Wildcats a distant third with two).
  • Utah is currently ranked 12th in both the AP and the Coaches Poll double-check this because the new rankings will come out on Monday.
  • The Runnin’ Utes are currently ninth in the nation in RPI, which will likely factor into the seed Utah gets in the NCAA Tournament.
Utah Utes forward Jordan Loveridge (21) puts up a shot during the second half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Utah won 57-55. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Utah Utes forward Jordan Loveridge (21) puts up a shot during the second half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Utah won 57-55. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The home finale against the Buffaloes was a real test of character for the Runnin’ Utes. Late in the game, Colorado went on a 16-0 run to take a 14-point lead with just over eight minutes to play. To put that in perspective, Utah never led by more than six points at any point the entire game.

Instead of giving up, the Runnin’ Utes showed the heart of a true champion and went on their own 19-point run to take the lead for good.

“There was something special in that building when we started making some plays and started coming back,” Krystkowiak said. “Our players mentioned it after Saturday night that man did that crowd ever help us out at the end. It’s really neat for our seniors to be able to have that memory and have that ringing in their ears for the rest of their lives.”

While Utah has already established a sold resume this season, the Runnin’ Utes are not resting on their laurels, but rather they are gearing up for another deep post-season run. All indications are that Utah should match, if not exceed, its Sweet 16 run last season.

The Pac-12 Tournament is this week, and the Runnin’ Utes have a first-round bye. Utah’s first game will be on Thursday, March 10, against the winner of USC and UCLA from the night before. Barring a potential upset by Oregon State, odds are the Runnin’ Utes will play Cal in the semifinal game on Friday. The good news is that Oregon, Arizona and Colorado are all on the other side of the bracket, and Utah will only play one of them if they reach the conference final on Saturday.

The regular season was merely an hors d’oeuvre, and as the Scorpions so famously sang, “the best is yet to come!” (I know Frank Sinatra had a similar song, but as a child of the 80’s I still prefer the Scorpions).

Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl, file photo from Utah vs. Idaho State, Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 27, 2015 | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics
Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl, file photo from Utah vs. Idaho State, Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 27, 2015 | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

One important note: Jakob Poeltl was named as Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year Monday. The 7-foot sophomore, who will likely be a high lottery pick if he decides to declare for the NBA after the season, becomes the first Utah player to receive the honor since the Runnin’ Utes joined the conference in 2011.

“I am obviously honored,” said Poeltl. “I have always said that individual awards are not really what I am [playing] for and I am more about the team. I hope that our team is playing well, but being named the Pac-12 Player of the Year is a great honor.”

Poeltl led the conference with a .660 field goal shooting percentage, ranked second with 17.6 points per game and was third in the league with 9.1 rebounds per game. The Vienna, Austria native ranked second in both total field goals made (202) and total points (543), while also collecting the third-most double-doubles (14) in the league.

“It’s a little bit daunting when you think about where we’d be without him,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah guard Brandon Taylor also was honored by the conference. He was tabbed as the Pac-12’s Scholar Athlete of the Year.

The Red Rocks are peaking at the right time as well as they wrap up the regular season this week on their way to another epic post-season run (they lost out on the National Championship last year by the slimmest of margins).

Last Friday night, Utah upset Michigan in Ann Arbor for the Wolverines senior night. The Red Rocks scored a season-high 197.525 for their sixth consecutive 197-plus score.

Kassandra Lopez vs. Michigan. | Photo by Deena Lofgren, University of Utah
Senior Kassandra Lopez vs. Michigan. | Photo by Deena Lofgren, University of Utah

“I told the team we are rounding into championship form,” said coach Tom Farden. “I liked the demeanor, which was light and fun. They’re at their best when they are having fun and they had fun from start to finish tonight. Our team chemistry is at a high right now.”

After spoiling three straight senior nights for opponents, the Red Rocks have their own senior night this Saturday against a very good Georgia squad. While fans will get to honor standout seniors Breanna Hughes, Kassandra Lopez, and Kailah Delaney, it won’t be the seniors’ last home meet as Utah will host an NCAA regional on Apr. 2.

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes take the first step in another memorable post-season run, and the Red Rocks set the table in their season finale for their own post-season fireworks.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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