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January 4, 2013

Defense dictates minutes

No block, no rock is a common football mantra, meaning if wide receivers aren't willing to get out and block for their teammates, they shouldn't expect to be thrown to.

While there is no clever, rhyming catch-phrase to attach to it, Utah head basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak has established definite criteria for his players to earn playing time, and it's very simple: play defense.

Facing a rare personnel situation, Utah is living with the double-edged sword that is having to play a slew of freshmen this season, putting heavy pressure on the youngsters to perform, and perform right away.

The painful edge is obvious, Utah is feeling the effects of its youth and inexperience in the form of at least four losses that should have been wins. With the most recent evidence coming off the one point heart-breaker Utah dropped Wednesday night versus Arizona State to fall to 0-1 in conference play.

The positive side, of course, is that in one or two years' time, Utah's five freshmen will have gained invaluable game experience, putting them ahead of the normal freshman curve, and in great position to enjoy success.

Clearly the long-term benefits outweigh the short term cons, but the fact of the matter is that Krystkowiak has no choice, and neither do his freshmen. The bottom line is that this group, along with three sophomores and two redshirt juniors who sat out last season due to injury and/or transfer rules, has been thrust into action and immediate results are both needed, and expected.

Displaying promise, potential and hope for the future, the largely inexperienced Utes have allowed moments and glimpses of greatness, but mostly have displayed inconsistency.

Freshman forward Jordan Loveridge carries most of the burden, and has proven early that he is more than capable of carrying it, despite the natural growing pains and requisite learning curve. Loveridge roommates Dakari Tucker and Justin Seymour] have also shown flashes of what the future might hold, along with freshman point guard [db]Brandon Taylor, who has come on strong of late.

The Utes' big men are mostly young or are still struggling to adjust to DI-level play, but sophomore Dallin Bachynski, redshirt freshman Jeremy Olsen and juco transfer Renan Lenz each have given legitimate cause for optimism.

The problem is that, in its current circumstance, Utah can ill afford to wait on potential, or hope for a brighter future. While the flashes shown by each have been promising, the Utes need more than glimpses, they need consistency from the bulk of these players in order to compete.

While most of the Utah roster have demonstrated sporadic ability to score, no single player has proven reliable on that end. Of even bigger concern, with the exception of senior Cedric Martin, no Ute has demonstrated the ability to play consistent defense for an entire game, week in and week out.

"Defensively is where we're going to be challenged. With freshmen it's real common for it to take a little while, and I can go right down the list with all of our freshmen from Jordan [Loveridge] to Brandon [Taylor] to [Jeremy Olsen]," said Krystkowiak. "That's where we have the breakdowns. Offensively those guys can play with a lot of people, but defensively, we're not there. That's where we've got to get focused on improving."

Krystkowiak came into the season with an almost obsessive commitment to playing defense, but heading into conference play, it's fair to say at the very least, that the Utes are renewing their commitment to defense, if not completely upping the ante. So much so that the second year coach isn't at all interested in a player's ability to score when doling out minutes come game day.

"With league play coming, we have to be able to guard. We're talking about playing against some of the most elite players," Krystkowiak said of his underclassmen. "They have to be ready to guard, and that's going to be the determining factor in whether those guys continue to play as much as they have."

Though Utah's defense has been the primary factor in keeping games close, it has not been able to sustain the effort for a full 40 minutes, or even throughout opponents' full possessions.

Narrowing his focus, Krystkowiak took the issue of playing defense one step further, breaking the problem all the way down to a few, precious seconds in the game. Krystkowiak intends to address those key seconds on defense which prove to add up, and ultimately make the difference between wins and losses.

"When you look at it, we've got some guys who are pretty good at staying down and playing good defense for 20 seconds or so, but not through the entire clock.That's where we've got to improve," Krystkowiak expanded. "When the legs are burning and we go past that initial swing is where we lose it. It's one thing to play pretty good defense for the first part of the clock, but it doesn't get you much if, after that, you lose your focus, or your toughness. I think we're losing our want-to late in possessions or the conditioning isn't there, because we're wearing down late. We have to get that fixed, that's our next step in this process."


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