The Utah Utes have been the nation's worst major-conference team for much of the season. We've been over this before. The Utes were almost never competitive in their 1-8 start, and by "never competitive," I mean they were getting blown out by the likes of Boise State (80-59), UNC Asheville (87-65), Fresno State (82-52) and Cal-State Fullerton (81-50). That start sunk Utah into the portion of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings where you expect to see teams like, say, Florida A&M, Bryant, Tennessee Martin and Howard. As of today, the Utes rank No. 321 in Pomeroy's list. It's bad, folks. It's really bad.
But there have been glimmers of hope. Since the 1-8 start, the Utes have been looking up: They notched two more wins (against Idaho State, Portland) in the nonconference, and even got a 62-60 home victory against Pac-12 foe Washington State. They also played Washington close at home and gave Stanford a run in a 68-65 loss in Palo Alto. They have one more conference win than USC, and this week, they even got out of the Pac-12 power rankings cellar. I did not see that one coming.
Alas, Thursday morning brings another turn for the worse: On Wednesday, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak dismissed leading scorer Josh "Jiggy" Watkins from the program. Watkins, if you'll recall, was same player who faced a one-game suspension earlier this season for sleeping through class and showing up late for practice, among other behaviors deemed detrimental to his team. On Wednesday, Krytskowiak told the Salt Lake Tribune that Watkins, despite his talent, left the coach no choice:
In the end, Krystkowiak said, Watkins was kicked off the team for issues similar to the ones that led to his suspension.
“I was hoping that was an eye-opening deal where it wouldn’t happen again,” Krystkowiak said, saying that the suspension was meant as a “lifeline.” “I just ran out of lifelines."
Unfortunately, with Watkins gone, the same can be said of this Utah team.
Watkins wasn't just Utah's leading scorer. Many times, he has been Utah's only scorer. No player in the country uses a higher rate of his team's available possessions; a mere 10 take a higher percentage of their team's available shots. Utah's lone conference win against Washington State came in large part thanks to Watkins' 20-point, seven-rebound, six-assist night, and it was Watkins who took and made the big shots down the stretch, including the winning one in overtime.
Watkins was hardly efficient in his production; his offensive rating is a downright bad 87.8. But when you're as bad as the Utes are this season, your leading scorer probably isn't going to be efficient. Either way, Krystkowiak desperately needs any talent he can get. This is a major blow.
At the same time, you have to give the coach credit: It might have been easier, or at least less painful for Utah's aggrieved fan base, to ignore Watkins's behavioral issues for the sake of the team's competitiveness in the remainder of Pac-12 play. Instead, Krytkowiak is proving a point from the get-go in Salt Lake: I don't care how bad we are or how much we need you. If you don't toe the line, we don't need you. Period.
It will be a long and miserable slog for the Utes through the rest of this 2012 schedule. The wins will be infrequent. The efficiency ranking will be ugly. The fans will pine for the glory days of yore. If this wasn't the worst power-conference team in the country already (Boston College's case has been hurt by not one, but two recent home wins), well, it is now. But Krystkowiak is taking the long view. Right now, that's all the Utes can do.