Utes've come a long way, baby

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
12:39
AM ET


So here’s the scenario: You’re pushing an unbeaten top-25 conference opponent to the brink on your home floor. It’s deep in overtime. You’re trading buckets, getting good shots, going toe to proverbial toe, and before long you come to the final possession. The game is tied. The ball is yours. The crowd is wired.

On the vast situational hoops spectrum, this is what counts as good news. Because maybe you make, and maybe you miss, but really: What’s the worst that could happen?

On Thursday night, Utah found out.

[+] EnlargeLarry Krystkowiak
AP photo/George FreyStrange as it sounds, the loss to Oregon shows Larry Krystkowiak has the Utes heading in the right direction.
No exaggeration: It’s hard to conceive of a more disappointing way to lose a basketball game. Tied at 68-68 with just seconds to play in overtime, Utah managed to turn the ball over to Oregon sophomore Damyean Dotson in exactly the manner Dotson required -- with exactly enough time, and not a second more -- to deflect Dillan Bachysnki’s near-side elbow pass to Jordan Loveridge, to launch himself downcourt, to glide out in front of an overcommitted Utah backcourt, and to crank the game-winning fast-break dunk home.

It all happened in about two seconds. Maybe less. The play-by-play says Dotson accomplished all of the above in one second, which isn’t exactly right -- though it was close enough to round down. Either way: For the Utes, it was the longest buzzer-beater in basketball history.

In fact, it was so bad, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak was … downright upbeat at his postgame news conference.

He has every reason to be. Because here’s the real takeaway from Utah’s absolutely brutal, crushing, insert-your-favorite-sports-cliché-here 70-68 loss to Oregon Thursday night: More than anything else, it was a 45-minute sign that the Utes, after just two years under Krystkowiak, truly are headed in the right direction.

Besides, one dunk -- one loss -- is nothing compared to what came before it. Consider where Utah was in Krystkowiak’s first year, 2011-12. Krystkowiak inherited a dreary, leaky attic of a basketball program from his predecessor, Jim Boylen -- not only bad but aggressively boring to boot.

In January of that season, Krystkowiak dismissed guard Josh Watkins -- who was taking 38.9 percent of Utah’s shots at the time -- for disciplinary reasons. This didn’t spark a sudden offensive renaissance: Utah finished the season shooting 31.0 percent on 3-pointers and 45.7 percent on 2-pointers. They scored .91 points per possession, which placed them 314th in the country in points per possession. Overall, they barely cracked the top 300 in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings; they went 6-25 overall, and 3-15 in the Pac-12, in their inaugural season in the conference. They appeared to have more in common with the SWAC.

And yet, almost immediately, Krystkowiak has gotten his team competitive. The 2012-13 campaign wasn’t one for the ages, but the year-over-year improvement was stark: The Utes were vastly more capable on both sides of the ball, finished 15-18, and saw freshman forward Jordan Loveridge emerge as a possibly promising go-to scorer.

And now look: Including Thursday night’s unfortunate result, the Utes are 11-2 on the season, including a blowout win over in-state rival BYU. Yes, the schedule is soft, BYU the only notable nonconference opponent, but so what? Utah was 6-25 two years ago. Six-and-25! If Loveridge had made a (relatively) open 3-pointer in the final moments of regulation Thursday night, or if Utah had made more than three of their 19 3s, the Utes would already have doubled that total. Meanwhile, they entered Thursday night shooting 60.7 percent from inside the arc, the highest tally in the country. They’re so, so much better.

You can see this vast developmental gulf in more than box scores and results pages. You can see it in the way Krystkowiak works his team’s advantages on the court, in the Utes’ smart situational use of timeouts and stoppages. You can see it in the way junior college transfer Delon Wright -- whose 77.4 percent 2-point FG percentage is the chief reason the Utes are so effective around the rim -- eventually forced Oregon into double-teams and added rotations. You can see it in the way Utah forced a very good Oregon team to the point that it needed a pair of defining plays from Dotson to escape Salt Lake City with a win.

Oregon is awfully good, by the way, though it had an uncharacteristically rough night shooting the basketball. Joseph Young was unusually quiet; Mike Moser finished 1-of-8 from the field. Even Dotson was only a sporadic influence on the game throughout. It wasn’t until the final minutes of overtime -- when he answered a Wright jumper with a beautiful drive and reverse layup, and singlehandedly made the game-winning play -- that he became the story.

That he and Oregon were able to do so is a testament, because this isn’t the Utah of two years ago anymore. The Utes are better, and getting better, and no matter how hard it must have been to lose a game like that, it must have been a lot of fun to be in one like it, too.

It has been too long since Utah made opponents breathe sighs of relief. It’s a start.
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