Over the course of the past decade, Ute fans have grown accustomed to good defense. With the words Utah, and defense in the same sentence, most would associate it with Utah football and head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Thanks to second year basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and staff, it's a new day in Utah athletics. With plenty of basketball yet to be played, Utah is currently tied for 30th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 57.7 points per game.
Utah ranks in the top ten in the nation in field goal percentage defense as Utah opponents have made just 179 shots in 522 attempts for a 34.3 percent average. On the strength of that defensive effort, Utah ranks sixth in the nation in that category.
Utah leads the Pac-12 conference in both categories as well.
Utah's defensive efforts are no accident, and in fact, are very much by design.
On the very first day of the practice, Krystkowiak emphasized defense, stating that it was the team's primary focus heading into the season.
"Defense wins championships. When you look across all of sports, it's the teams who emphasize defense that are having success," he said. "In the Super Bowl, it was interesting because you had the top offensive team, and the top defensive team and something had to give. In the end, defense won out."
It sounded nice at the time, but ultimately it was easy to chalk up simply as coach speak.
Nine games into the season, the proof is in the pudding and the Utes have delivered on the defensive side of the ball thus far.
Assistant Head Coach Andy Hill sat down with UteZone to discuss how Utah built a strong defensive team from the ground up.
"When we started this season, we once again we had a bunch of new guys. In that situation, you look for ways to create situations for success, so our thoughts turned naturally to defense," explained Hill on the coaching staff's philosophy at the end of their first season. "A good offense starts with good defense, and if you're playing good defense or have a good energy on that side of the ball, playing offense just gets easier."
The next question became from a recruiting standpoint, did the Ute coaching staff target good defenders, or players who had other skills whom they felt could learn to play good defense?
Coach Hill's answer was a bit of a surprise.
"That's a good question, and it's one we had to figure out, because we had so many different needs to fill at the time. Last year we really lacked skill, and that was the number one thing that we needed to upgrade, all the way around," Hill explained. "We believed we had a good system, offensively and defensively, and we believed that we played hard, but we had a hard time scoring the ball. So we went out and tried to find more skilled offensive players. But in thinking about playing defense, you have to have some size and length, so we were look for those fundamental things in the offensive players that we were scouting."
Despite the defensive emphasis, Utah recruited stronger offensive players, but ones who had not only the physical attributes, but who demonstrated a certain attitude and/or work ethic; the kind needed to play dogged defense.
"With defense, especially at the Pac-12 level, you have to have the size and length, but mostly it comes down to hard work and effort, so we looked for those effort kinds of kids, who then of course, could score too," he said of the tricky recruiting balance. "So if we can keep the good [offensive] skill level with some of these guys, keep the good effort, hard work and attitude, that's the ideal. The thought was we could teach players like that the defensive schemes, and they would hopefully play hard with that effort within them. The thought was that would be our formula for success, and for putting out a good product."
While a tall order, the coaching staff felt confident in their ability to teach defense, and further, instill the mind-set necessary to play great defense, mostly because of Krystkowiak's own personality and mind-set.
"I think a lot of times in basketball, a team becomes a reflection of who the coach is. Maybe a better way to put it is, I guess, that you are what you emphasize, but either way that boils down to Coach Krystkowiak," observed Hill. "Some teams are systematic, some teams are associated with a high tempo offense, or whatever that is, but it trickles down from the head coach and teams just naturally kind of take on that personality. I think [Krystkowiak] has done a great job of making defense an emphasis from the start, and he talked about that becoming our identity."
Plans and words are one thing, but a team must buy into a coaching staff's message. Simply having a plan, or making statements about emphasizing good defense are no guarantee of results.
Playing good defense at Utah has been a three-pronged process; evaluating players and convincing those players to come, establishing a team mind-set and environment for playing it and getting players to believe in it, and work for it.
According to Hill and the Utes' early season defensive statistics, Ute fans can put a check mark by all three.
"We just told the guys point blank, this is our best chance to win. Playing defense is just something we are going to have to do to be successful. We talked about how playing good defense goes on to create a good offense," he recalled. "He's done a great job of selling that as our core philosophy, and the guys have done an even better job of buying into that. In fact, they're getting better, and putting more effort and emphasis into it as the season goes on, because they're starting to see the benefits of it in games."
Senior guard Jarred DuBois mirrored Hill's thoughts.
"I think as a team that we're starting to realize the more we play how important defense is. Shots aren't always going to fall like they did [against Boise State], and we learned some of the same things on the road trip and in the loss to SMU," said DuBois. "We're learning that any time you can rely on your defense, you always have a chance to win. You can't focus on offense so much, because you can't always control that, but you can always control how hard you go, or the level of your defensive intensity. We're trying to be smart and focus on the things that we can control."
Both Hill and DuBois were on the same page, though interviews were conducted up to a week apart.
"If you understand that you know your team can play solid defense, you have a base to work from. You have a certain confidence level," said Hill the day after the Boise State win. "We feel if we will put in the work and the effort, we will always be able to hang our hat on team defense. Consistently, that's something we are starting to feel we can depend on."
"Last night was the best lesson we could have gotten about defense. Our shots weren't falling [at BYU] and because we played defense, we still had a chance to win," he said. "For anyone who didn't understand it before, they understand that now. I think that's going to make us want to play that much harder on defense going forward. We relied on our defense, and that got us pretty far. We were one shot away without scoring in seven minutes, so knowing that we can always rely on our defense, and we can control it is a huge boost in confidence."