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February 24, 2013

Keeping up with the Joneses

After almost six years of turmoil, the Utah Basketball program looked to this season as the key first step in rebuilding and the truth is that despite some success and progress, it has ultimately been a mixed bag.

After being hired on April 4, 2011, current head coach Larry Krystkowiak had little time to recruit for the 2011-12 season and also faced a likely, significant roster turnover. While some Utes decided that they had endured enough turmoil in their careers as Utes, the new coaching staff determined that others may not be a good fit going forward.

Regardless of circumstances, Krystkowiak found himself needing to fill 11 spots, in very short order. Krystkowiak's first class was made up of high-character players, who signed up for a thankless, no-win situation, worked as hard and stayed together as much as any team. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished as the Utes would finish 6-25, and only three players from that class would stay on for the 2012-13 season.

Krystkowiak once again had a large number of vacancies to fill for 2012-13, but at least had more time to do so. The result was an impressive class that consisted of four transfers and five talented freshmen, anchored by in-state triumph Jordan Loveridge.

Under all circumstances and for all intents and purposes, this season is realistically Krystkowiak's year one; the start of something stable enough to build upon.

By the numbers Utah has disappointed, sitting at 11-14, 3-11 with four games remaining before the Pac-12 tournament. While the season has been disappointing for fans, it has also disappointed the Ute coaching staff, as well as players.

"Our record is what it is. The game is measured, success is measured in terms of wins or losses.That's how we're judged, so if we're sitting at 11-14 on the season and 3-11 in conference, then that's how good we are," Krystkowiak stated. "If we end up even with four more wins this season, that's not a number I'm satisfied with, and no one around here is. We've come close in some games, but it didn't happen. So our record stands, even though we know how hard we worked and how close we came, it didn't count in the win column."

Though close calls, and almosts don't count, on the court, this Utah team have demonstrated a genuine ability to compete and should have given good reason that the Ute basketball program is headed in the right direction.

"That's our record, like I said. Internally, we feel that it doesn't reflect how good a team we are. Internally, we feel like we are a better team than 11-13," he expanded. "We felt like we had games that we just let slip through our hands, should have won. We can't be willing to hang our hats on moral victories, but we also have to acknowledge where we have made progress, even if we couldn't get the win."

Discussing progress is all relative, as it turns out. While the Utes have certainly made some, turns out the rest of the Pac-12 conference has, too.

"I think if you put the team we have this year in last season's position, we win more than six games. We have absolutely improved, and we have seen progress here this season," Krystkowiak speculated. "Maybe that's a little bit less than we thought, but definite progress. What you're talking about, though, is that our conference, almost across the board has also gotten a lot better."

There are a lot of ways to measure a conference's progression; the number of NCAA tournament teams, comparing things such as RPI and SOS rankings, parity in conference and a number of other methods.

In every way mentioned, the Pac-12 has improved, with a projected five to six teams headed to the NCAA Tournament versus the two teams it sent last season. One of those teams was a Cal team who merely had a shot a play-in, but lost to Florida leaving only Colorado to represent the once-proud basketball conference.

Realtimerpi.com ranks the Pac-12 conference the sixth best in the nation with a .5609 average RPI rating and .5575 average Strength of Schedule ranking in contrast to a No. 10 ranking last season. Last season, the Pac-12 ranked behind the likes of Conference USA, Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10, Atlantic Coast, Mountain West, SEC, Big XII, Big East and Big X, in order.

Sitting at No. 6 in the power rankings, the Pac-12 has jumped the SEC, the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley this season, and with four games remaining, could close the gap between itself and the Big XII and Atlantic Coast conferences yet.

Utah has won two of its three conference games against the Pac-12's top six teams in the current rankings. One conference win came against Colorado, who has a current ranking of No. 25 from realtimerpi.com and a No. 38 ranking from kenpom.com. Utah's other win against a top-half team came against 4th place Arizona State, who has a No. 72 ranking from realtimerpi.com, and No. 76 ranking from kenpom. com. The Sun Devils are certainly headed for post-season play, if not the Big Dance.

Arizona State is one of the conference's most improved teams sitting at 20-7, 9-5 on the year versus 10-21, 6-12 last season. USC has also made huge strides from this year to last, at12-14, 7-6 versus last season's last-place 6-26, 1-17 effort.

Besides Utah, USC and ASU, the conference's other eight teams each sit anywhere from 1-3 wins off of last season's conference record with at least three games remaining.

With three more games to go, six teams still have a legitimate shot at the conference title however, some odds are longer than others and most don't control their own fate.

With all the various rankings, ratings, records and statistics out there pointing to collective conference improvement, the proof is in the pudding and any observer of Pac-12 basketball should be able to recognize that progress on site.

The Pac-12's overall improvement and progress has certainly not been lost on Krystkowiak.

"It's one of those things where you can measure our progress, but maybe the progress we made, compared to the rest of the league wasn't enough. We measured ourselves against where we last year, and the result is good, that way," explained Krystkowiak. "When we stack up against the rest of the league, whatever progress we made didn't measure up to the progress they all made, overall. It's a different way to look at it, and we need to do that. It's something we need to do."

With an altered perspective of what it takes to compete, the Utah program understands that stacking up against itself in past years will not suffice, and will not the barometer for future success in the Pac-12 conference.

While many looked for some small measure of progress this season, which would have been a fair expectation, it turns out that rather than baby steps, Utah Basketball needs to take some big leaps and serious bounds in order to compete moving forward.

"It looks like this is a thing, given all the progress the conference has made, that we need to stop thinking about incremental progress or smaller steps," Krystkowiak admitted. "The way this conference from one to 11 has improved we are just going to have to find a way to do more, take a bigger step. At the rate we're going, no matter how much better we are than last year, it's not enough to be competitive in conference."


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