Inexplicably, the Runnin' Utes have suffered multiple stretches of offensive inefficiency and lack of execution, resulting in lengthy scoring droughts.
The Utes suffered another one Friday night in a troubling and puzzling loss to Cal-State Northridge, dropping them to 7-4 on the season.
Friday's scoring drought is troubling in and of itself, but the much larger concern is that the issue is being repeated over and over again. In each of Utah's four losses, the same issue occurred versus Sacramento State and at SMU and BYU, and most recently Cal State Northridge.
"We've got to figure out a way to execute better, and put an end to those [long] stretches of minutes without scoring. Again, it's a mind-set we have to fight through and be a little bit tougher," said Krystkowiak. "We've got to look for a good shot and at the end of the day, we've got to make the shots that are presented to us."
Utah led Northridge led 48-27 at the half, dominating in almost every category. The Utes' first half performance even had the trappings of a blowout against a respectable, solid team. The 21 point margin was the largest of the game for the Utes, but a 21-2 run by the Matadors just under the mid-way mark of the second half evaporated the Utah lead.
Senior center Jason Washburn hit Utah's last bucket at the 13:26 mark of the half for two of his 13 points on the night. Aside from two free throws from the game's leading scorer, Jordan Loveridge at the 9:05 mark, Utah would not score again until Loveridge drilled a three-pointer with 4:15 left in the game.
In that time span, Utah missed 13 consecutive shots, committed six turnovers, three fouls and gave up seven rebounds.
After hot shooting in the first half with a 60 percent performance (18-30), Utah went cold in the second on 6-27 shooting and a 22.2 percentage from the field. Indeed, the game was a tale of two halves, or a tale of a team with two alternating, contrasting personalities. Utah played almost flawlessly in the first 20 minutes, before suffering one of the worst breakdowns in recollection.
"I don't think we're that bad of a shooting team. At the end of the day, it's the turnovers. We got shots on goal, but those turnovers suck the life out of us," offered head coach Larry Krystkowiak. "The rim was bigger in the first half, and we got nervous. But it was turnovers that put us in that spot."
Ball security has also been a continual issue for the Utes this season, and Utah committed 15 Friday night, which equated to 19 Northridge points. Averaging 16 turnovers a game, the Utes have still managed to win seven contests. In seven different games, including the win over Boise State, Utah has committed over 15 turnovers and still won the contest.
In a game where the Utes significantly out-rebounded the Matadors 38-27 and dished out 20 assists, combined with big scoring performances from Loveridge, Washburn and senior guard Jarred DuBois, the numbers should have equated to a Ute win, in spite of turnovers.
Credit the no-quit Matadors, who came into the contest with a 7-3 record, as they executed in an equally stunning turn-around of their own in the second half.
After shooting 39.3 percent in the first half, Northridge struck back in the second with a 65.5 FG percentage and hit 5-7 three pointers, good for a 57 percent average.
Despite a gritty Northridge performance and great execution, the Utes suffered a total collapse that wasn't isolated to just one side of the ball, making the loss all the more troubling.
Senior point guard Jarred DuBois attempted to verbalize the issues facing his team at the moment.
"We've got to play 40 minutes. We can't afford to take our foot off the gas. We talked after the game about going out and taking games, because no one is going to give us anything," he offered. "We haven't earned the right to just show up and win a game, we have to take the game. We didn't do that tonight."
Ultimately, DuBois turned placed his focus on defense.
"We need to get stops, and then we'll get easy baskets. Everything was wide open in the first half because we got stops, so we were wide open," he furthered. "We were able to run. If you defend and get stops, offense is easy. If you don't, and you have to take it out of the basket the other team has momentum. They get a chance to get set in their defense, and it's hard."
The game themes are familiar, as are the responses coming from Ute players and coaches alike, but still the same three issues persist for the Utes. Turnovers, poor shot selection and an inexplicable discontinuation of playing defense in stretches have combined to doom the Utes so far, with little to no measurable progress carried from game to game.
Even more troubling is that Utah seemingly has fixed, and addressed each of these issues, applied the lessons in games they've won, before taking huge steps backward in losses to that shouldn't have resulted in a loss.
With perennial issues looming overhead, Krystkowiak's team must find a way to resolve what they have failed to fix in ten games as Pac-12 play lies just around the corner when they travel to Arizona State on January 2.
While from top to bottom, Utah may not stack up with other Pac-12 teams talent-wise, it has enough talent to be competitive - if it will execute the game plan, play smart and play efficiently.
The Jekyll and Hyde aspect of this team is enough to negate the positives that this group has shown thus far in the season, and the reality is that offering up answers such as newness of staff or personnel is no longer a viable excuse, nor is claiming lack of talent: this team has revealed too much to the contrary in Utah's ten games, even against the quality of opponents it has faced.
Certainly youth, newness and inexperience play into the four Utah losses, but the team found ways to come together early on, something that can take copious amounts of time, making it difficult to point to that as the number one issue plaguing the Runnin' Utes. Especially when the majority of mistakes originate with Utah's experienced upper-classmen. Redshirt junior Aaron Dotson led the team Friday with five turnovers, while senior Jarred DuBois had three.
Utah's upperclassmen combined accounted for 11 of Utah's 15 turnovers.
For this team, a rash of losses, but with marked, measurable improvement would be less troubling than a team that has shown it can put it together at times, before ultimately falling apart-even in the midst of a game, as it did Friday night.