Coming off of a huge road win at Washington Saturday, the Runnin' Utes have a great opportunity at home against Cal to turn their season around.
The Utes finally found themselves on the right side of seemingly every call, every bounce of the ball and were a step ahead of virtually every hustle play at the Huskies' Alaska Airlines Arena Saturday. In short, practically everything went exactly right, something to which the Utes are not accustomed.
The end result was Utah's first ever Pac-12 road victory. The Utes are now heading into a three game home stretch just prior to a very winnable game at Oregon State, who remains the only Pac-12 team without a conference victory.
While Utah's next four opponents fall squarely into the lower half of the Pac-12 conference standings, each one has a respectable record, featuring quality wins and some close calls against top notch competition.
Although the stretch is nothing to scoff at, it represents Utah's best chance to put together a string of wins following its recently snapped and certainly ugly five game conference skid.
In short, the stretch is critical.
After an exceptional performance against Washington, it remains to be seen whether or not this Utah team can put up the effort and consistency for two or more games in a row. Krystkowiak's team has enjoyed three win streaks this season, winning a season-high three consecutive games over the Thanksgiving holiday, and had a pair of two-game win streaks in pre-season.
Eighteen games into the season, the numbers show that the Utes aren't particularly adept at stringing together wins, despite some impressive, albeit sporadic outings. Now, the challenge for Utah is to put together a string of conference wins, which would represent the next step in its progression.
The Utes insist they are ready to take that step. Though optimistic and confident, no player can put his finger on how it ought to be done, other than to try to duplicate the things that have worked for them in the past.
"I don't know if there's any one thing we can do. We just have to try to find a way to come out with that same mind-set we had at Washington," Jason Washburn said. "We have to try to find a way to take everything we did well and bring it with us here against Cal on Thursday."
Herein lies the challenge, because at the end of the day, the win over Washington means very little other than a notation in a record book somewhere in Walnut Creek, California if Utah can't parlay the win into something of a run.
Freshman cornerstone Jordan Loveridge took a pass at the secret to extending the winning formula into Thursday's contest.
"I think getting ahead early, and not having the pressure of playing from behind is big," he offered, and correctly so. "We have to keep playing defense, running our sets, making smart decisions."
Every comment made was correct, and genuine, but still offered no explanation for how it might actually be executed. After all, every answer given should have applied to every one of the 18 games on the schedule, and with a 9-9 record, and a series of close losses, and not-so close losses Utah has proven itself to be the very picture of inconsistency.
Indeed, this team has been here before; enjoying the high points and pinnacles, only to fall miserably short in subsequent outings. Each time it has been the victim of its own violent inconsistency.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak had some thoughts of his own on the matter.
"Well, I think we have got to get consistent. We are looking to do that, and we're taking steps in that direction all the time. Our guys are getting more comfortable with [the system], and that's a big part of it," Krystkowiak explained. "We have to keep up the effort on both sides of the ball. We've kind of fallen into the trap of expending all our energy and focus on the defensive side of the ball, and then we kind of forget that we also have to bring that same level on the offensive side."
Krystkowiak also credited Utah's opponents for representing formidable challenges.
"Well it also hasn't always been 100% about us. We're playing some really good teams in this conference and it's their goal to figure out what we're trying to do and stop it, so they can win," he stated matter of factly. "I think we've been challenged by a lot of that, and especially, athletically. We can only control what we can control, so it's up to us to know what's going out there, commit to playing the kind of defense we want to play and keep up that effort. For a full forty minutes. That may really be our biggest challenge."
The best answer, by a general consensus, was the notion of coming out strong and jumping on a team early, as previously mentioned by Loveridge.
"I think a big thing for us, that was something we find of figured out was that if need to come out swinging. If we come out and can't get going from the get-go, we're in a hole quick and we're having to spend all our energy fighting our way out of it," Krystkowiak said. "If we can find a way to bottle up whatever it was that we had the other night to come out strong and tough early, we have to find a way to do it."
For Loveridge's part, getting off to a good start has a lot to do with the changes his coaching staff asked him to make prior to the Washington game, and at least for one game, it paid off.
"Coach told me that it would just help the team if I would stop taking as many jumpers, that I needed to try and get up around the basket to make a play, or create opportunities for my teammates," he said. "I think that took a lot of pressure off the guards, and off of all of us. Doing that, taking the closer shots or playing more of an inside game just made the offense easier for all of us. For the first time, we weren't panicking trying to catch up."
Down the line, each of the Utes interviewed this week agreed, from Washburn to Brandon Taylor, who is enjoying a break-out moment after his career performance Saturday.
As the Utes look for ways to duplicate all the positives derived from the Washington victory, ranging from game planning and preparation to a changing mind-set, Krystkowiak has not surprisingly identified areas in need of improvement.
"We've got to do all the things we did well and do them again, and maybe do them even better," he said. "The other really big focus this week is that we gave up too many offensive rebounds, 16 or 17 of them. That's way too many, and we're not going to win very many games that way."
Krystkowiak continued, in summary, the main steps Utah is taking to establish momentum and consistent play into the Cal game.
"So that's been kind of my cause this week. If we can keep fixing each of the issues as they come up, plus the new ones that pop up, like this week with the offensive rebounds, I think we give ourselves a chance," he said. "I think that's what consistency is, resolving the problems you had, then do that for a string of games, while adding to the list of resolved problems. The trick is you have to keep your finger in all the holes in the dam. That's a little bit of a challenge every week. So we'll keep working to improve, and we'll game plan for Thursday and try do a little better each time out."