The Runnin' Utes beat Georgetown 75-64 on Saturday night in Portland to advance to the sweet sixteen. The win marks the first time in 10 years, since 2005, the Utes have reached the second weekend of the tournament. For Larry Krystkowiak's team, this a major milestone considering where they started.
It was April 2011, the Utah basketball program was coming off yet another disappointing season, one that got Jim Boylen fired. Other than a brief flash-in-the-pan appearance in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, Utah had struggled through two consecutive coaching hires. Both Ray Giacoletti and Boylen had failed to field teams that lived up to the expectations Utah fans had post Rick Majerus. Then late on April 2nd 2011, Larry Krystkowiak signed on to become the next head coach of the University of Utah.
Reaction to the hire was mixed at best. Randy Bennett of St. Mary's and Mark Gottfried the former Alabama and current NC State coach were rumored to be the leading candidates for a short time. When Krystkowiak was announced as a coach, all most people knew, is he was an NBA assistant for the New Jersey Nets and had a forgettable one year stint as the Milwaukee Bucks head coach.
Krystkowiak did have a successful, albeit short, run as the coach for the University of Montana. In two seasons he led the Montana Griz to a 42-20 record and an NCAA tournament victory. No one knew how that experience in the Big Sky would translate to a team making the transition into the Pac-12. Four years later, it's clear that Krystkowiak was just the guy for the job.
The 2011-2012 season was understandably a rough one. There was heavy roster turnover from the season prior as players loyal to Jim Boylen transferred, while others such as Josh "Jiggy" Watkins were dismissed during the season. Coach Krystkowiak struggled to cobble together a team, pulling a number of JC guys and transfers at the last minute as the Utes ran out their inaugural Pac-12 squad. This season would serve as the baseline for Krystkowiak's tenure at Utah and it was about as low as it could get. The Utes finished the season 6-25 overall and 3-15 in conference for an 11th place finish in the Pac-12.
For the Utes every single one of their 6 wins came came at the Huntsman Center and they struggled to come by those wins. They beat Stanford by one, beat San Diego Christian College by only three, and had to go into overtime to knock of WSU that season. The 6-25 season marked the absolute historical nadir for the Runnin' Utes program. As bad as the 6-25 record was, it could have been much worse if a few bounces had gone the other way.
The 2012-2013 got off to a much better start. Front loaded with cupcakes, the Utes came out of the gate to a 7-3 start in the first 10 games. The Utes played BYU tough down south in the Marriott Center, coming up three points short of the upset and were able to nearly triple the overall win total of the previous year, going 15-18. Pac-12 play continued to be rough spot; however, as the Utes had only three conference wins on March 7th, no better than the previous season.
This specific point in time is where the run of success this year's team is experiencing all began. Sitting at 3-13 in conference with two games to go in the regular season, the Utes beat a visiting Oregon State team before hosting the 19th-ranked Oregon Ducks. The Utes would shock the Ducks on the floor of the Huntsman Center, giving Krystkowiak and the Utes their first back-to-back Pac-12 victories. The Utes were not finished, as they reeled of two more victories in the Pac-12 tournament, making it to the semi finals behind the play of senior Jerrod DuBois and Jason Washburn. This run through the Pac-12 tournament was the turning point for Larry Krystkowiak and this program, setting the stage for the following two seasons.
Last year, the 2013-2014 season brought All-American Delon Wright into the fold, and Krystkowiak continued his steady rebuild of the Ute program as they started off white hot, roaring to an 11-1 start before coming back to earth for a final record of 21-12. The Utes reached a new milestone in the Pac-12 as well, as they finished the season 9-9 in conference for their first non losing Pac-12 season. This all resulted in an NIT berth due to the weak non conference schedule. The Utes were ousted by St. Mary's in the first round. Despite the disappointing loss, it was clear this team was on the upswing and the coach K was the right man for the job.
This year's season has been a kind of coming out party for the Utes. The nation has taken notice and the sweet sixteen run has cemented Utah's return to national prominence. The Utes improved both their overall and conference record once again this year, as they currently sit at 26-8 (13-5) with at least one more game to play. Krystkowiak continues to show he is the right man for the job as the Utes finished with their first ever winning record in Pac-12 play. They will finish the season with fewer than 10 losses for the first time since 2005, when they last made the sweet sixteen and finished 25-6.
When looking at the numbers there is no doubt coach Krystkowiak has been a home run hire for the Utes. The program has consistently improved both overall and conference records every year. The team has progressed in the post season performance in every season. Krystkowiak has brought in talent such as Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl, who in the recent past would not have considered Utah. Good players from within the state such as Jordan Loveridge and Brekkot Chapman are choosing to stay home and play for Krystkowiak. Most importantly, coach K has brought an identity back to the program, one that is predicated on playing tough, suffocating defense and smart, efficient offense.
Krystkowiak's Record by Years
Pac-12 Finish by Years
The rise of this Utah program from the ashes has even prompted the national media to examine coach Krytkowiak's personal superstitions. Everything ranging from the significance of the number 7, to his ritual of burning Montana sweetgrass in the locker room before gamesis being looked at to understand the quick turn around Krystkowiak's been able to accomplish. While there is no scientific evidence to suggest burning a braid of grass and sage before a game effects the final score, it seems to be working for coach Krystkowiak and his team.
In four short years, Larry Krystkowiak has lifted this basketball program from performances such as losing by 29 in late December to Weber State, to beating Georgetown by 11 in the NCAA Tournament. (To be fair, that Weber State team had an All NBA guard in Damien Lillard.) The change in culture is obvious, where four years ago the Huntsman Center was a cavernous echo chamber to play in, it is now brimming with energy, providing one of the best homecourt advantages in the nation. The Rick Majerus era spoiled Utah fans into taking tournament victories for granted. As a fan base, that has now seen the bottom of the barrel, we are able to appreciate the rebirth of this proud program. This is hopefully just the beginning of the Larry Krystkowiak era and we are fortunate to be witnesses.