After a troubling 0-4 start to Pac-12 play, head coach Larry Krystkowiak's Runnin' Utes haven't really been running all that much.
The Utes, who came into the season expressing confidence in their offense, are ironically struggling offensively.
"We know that we can score the ball, so our focus this season has to be defense," Krystkowiak stated on the first day of practice back in mid-fall. In opening interviews, nearly every player interviewed echoed the sentiment.
Utah had gone through its pre-season schedule averaging 69.41 points per game, but since Pac-12 play commenced, it is averaging just 55.75 points per game, an indication that the Utah offense has come to a grinding halt. Utah ranks No. 213 in the nation in average points per game, after cracking the top 50 at one point in pre-season.
Defensively, the Utes have done what they said they were going to do, which was play defense, rather impressively throughout the majority of the season. Utah's defense has garnered it several national and conference rankings, having established a defensive identity of sorts.
So much so that defense has been the aspect of the game that has kept Utah in games, and of course, the Utes got an unfriendly reminder of what happens when they don't play defense.
After sticking close to three quality Pac-12 opponents in Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, losing by a combined eight points, Utah took a 17 point beating from 6-10 USC at home in the Huntsman Center Saturday.
After the three close losses, the feeling was that the Utes were close, and just had to be patient in waiting for their breakthrough. Once the USC loss struck, it was time to take a closer look at the situation.
We're at the point in our season where we're going to have 10 minute meetings with each guy. Our coaches are going to put together a list of three or four things that [everyone] needs to do better," revealed Krystkowiak immediately after the USC loss. "We'll have those meetings completed by Monday's practice, and by the time we hit Monday's practice, two things. One, we're not going to quit, there's no way we're ever going to quit. Two, it's talk is cheap. It's time to come out and draw the line. There's no confusion about what coaches expect. Let's stop talking about the woulda, coulda, shouldas."
After a much needed day off on Sunday, Ute players found time to meet with their coaches before departing to the latest must-win contest at Washington State Wednesday.
Holding personal meetings with players is something Krystkowiak has done regularly throughout his coaching career, and the latest round proved extremely beneficial to Ute players.
"For me, it was really positive. I think it's really good to get everyone on the same page, and to clarify what the expectations are," said freshman Jordan Loveridge. "For me, it was nice to know that all the little things you're doing, they're noticing. Sometimes you feel like it gets over-looked, and to know that it's not is good."
As Loveridge mentioned, the meeting was not only meant to address issues that needed improvement, it was also meant to highlight the positives, among other things.
"What was cool for me was that the coaches just kind of let us know that they were there for us, if we ever needed anything," he revealed. "On or off the court, so it was something that I knew, but it was nice to get that reminder. That we're still a tight group."
Junior point guard Glen Dean who is an important, even critical contributor on the team has drawn some criticism for his play of late. The Utes have proven through the course of their 16 game season that they are in need of another consistent, outside shooter who can be trusted to run the offense, protect the ball and play defense in addition to scoring.
While many hoped that Dean could fill that role, he hasn't done so with any consistency so far, though he has shown flashes of potential at times.
While every player and coach was asked take a hard look at himself since Saturday's loss, it seemed natural to follow up on Dean's experience in particular, following the one-on-one meetings to see what it may have turned up.
"The negatives weren't really a surprise, because I basically already knew what I needed to. I don't want to say negatives, because it wasn't presented like that, but the areas of improvement for me weren't a surprise," he explained. "The whole meeting itself was really positive. I appreciated the chance to sit with the coaches and just kind of gauge where we're at."
By all accounts, the meeting wasn't just a one-way street where coaches laid out what they expected, and what changes were to be made. Each of the Utes revealed that the conversation was open-ended, and that the coaches welcomed the input of each player, particularly as it pertained to their offensive struggles.
"Not that much surprised me about the meeting, except that maybe what surprised me is how much [Krystkowiak] agreed with me about some things I wanted to talk about the offense," he said. "That was kind of a nice surprise, because it turned out we were on the same page on some things, and I wasn't sure that we were, going into the meeting."
While Dean reiterated that he had no real complaints, he just had some thoughts he wanted to share with his coach, and that the validation he received from the staff was a confidence-builder.
The result of the collective, introspective look at the Utah basketball team, and its offensive struggles is a simplification of the Ute offense.
"It's nothing crazy, and we're not going totally away from our identity, but we're just going to make it more simple, more flexible," explained Dean. "It will give us an opportunity to make more plays, and get a little bit more creative, where it makes sense, as players. I think it's really positive."
Coming from the NBA with extensive coaching experience, Krystkowiak brought with him a more sophisticated offensive style, which, according to Dean, took some adjusting.
"It's not that the offense is so complicated, or hard. It's just a little bit different. I'm comfortable in it this year, but being here last year, I have to admit, it was a bit of a adjustment for me," Dean offered. "He comes from the NBA, and he just has that experience and mind-set, which isn't a bad thing. He's just brought with him a lot of the things they're already doing at the next level. It's an advantage."
However, with too many guys struggling mentally, Krystkowiak recognized the issue, and addressed it quickly.
"Well, it's not "dumbing it down" or anything like that. Simplifying things just lets the guys kind of get out of their own heads a little bit. Gives them a chance to go out and make plays, which is more natural for them," explained Krystkowiak. "What we have going on now is up between the ears, so we're just freeing up their minds so that they can go out and play basketball, and worry less about where they're supposed to be."
With some things reemphasized, revisited, and hopefully resolved, the Utes are moving forward with a clean slate following the meetings. According to Loveridge, Dean and other Ute players, the meetings have served, at least in words, as a sort of reset, or cleaning of the slate.
For Dean, who is a big believer in communication, his meeting was an extremely important exercise in his progress, noting that these types of meetings have benefitted him in big ways throughout his career.
"I had a meeting kind of like this back in high school, right before my season. I won't go into the details, but I view it today as one of the biggest moments of my entire career. It turned my entire career around, and it was just a thing where the expectations were made clear," he recalled. "We just cleared the air, and we got everything on the table. I walked out of that meeting a different basketball player, and it showed in the season I had afterward."
At Eastern Washington, Dean's home prior to Utah, he had another similar meeting with coaches, which yielded similar results.
"It was the same thing at Eastern Washington, in a meeting I had up there. I am just someone who needs to understand everything, and understand what the goals and expectations are, so something like this will always be a positive for me," he said. "My meeting here at Utah, will hopefully produce the same thing. I came out very clear about what my coaches want from me, and see in me. So again, it was just another very big positive. I'll have to see how it translates on the court, but I feel good about things."