With nearly four whole days to dwell on its inexplicable collapse that resulted in a 76-71 loss to Cal-State Northridge last week, the Utah basketball team returned to practice without any sense of panic Wednesday night.
"I don't think we've lost any confidence in ourselves as a team. We understand that we have just given games away, and that a lot of it, most of it, was in our control," stated junior guard Aaron Dotson. "It isn't confidence that's the issue because we know what we can do when we execute, play defense and play smart."
Perhaps a new focus, or resolve, certainly awareness - but no panic.
"We haven't really talked about it away from the coaches, as a team or anything. I mean everyone here saw what happened and no one likes losing. So we just decided to come in and put our noses down and work through it," said junior guard Aaron Dotson. "Everyone knows what the issues are, and we've addressed those in practice by increasing our focus. It's a matter of doing it, not talking about it."
Fans however, may not be as sure as the Utes have suffered four troubling collapses in each of their four losses consisting of prolonged periods without scoring, including the nine minute drought versus Northridge that erased a 21 point halftime lead.
"Turnovers are just kind of sucking the life out of our team," stated head coach Larry Krystkowiak. "I think we're 240th in the country in terms of percentage of our turnovers. That's just too high for us."
While Utah turnovers have been tabbed as the primary culprit, that issue has a trickle-down effect on other facets of the game such as poor shot selection, lack of execution and defensive letdowns.
"Whenever you turn the ball over, that puts a lot of heat on your defense. We couldn't defend some of their transitions and layups and that gives [the opponent] some confidence," said Krystkowiak. "We made a lot of bad decisions with our passing, and with the shots we were taking, but it all stems from the turnovers. That kind of spills over into everything else."
In short, the issue is mental; a decision the Utes must consciously make in order to avoid the collapses that have now turned into a troubling trend, rather than a rare occasion.
"Once we get our leads, we're being passive and letting off the gas instead of attacking. We need to learn to step on throats of teams when we have them, but it's just something that we haven't done so far," offered Dotson. "That's the thing that I think this team is still learning. We're still new, so we're working on learning that part of it."
The trend is so prevalent that the Utes feel their season could have been dramatically different had they avoided the severe letdowns. Utah's four losses have come by a total of 18 points, one of which was a seven point loss at SMU, and in each loss Utah suffered a scoring drought of at least five minutes and as long as nine minutes.
"Coach was telling us yesterday that we're a team that could be 10-1 right now, if not for our breakdowns and mental lapses," Dotson reflected. "That's kind of big to think about, because just that much more effort or execution could have made such a difference."
Looking at the other side of the coin is that despite the breakdowns, the Utes had an opportunity to win each of the four contests in the final minutes.
"The first half against Northridge was as good a half as we've had. We've had some good stretches to go along with the other ones. It's really hard to comprehend having a half that was such a disaster after playing so well," observed Krystkowiak. "We just have to remember that there was some good in it. We have to remember that the ship's not sinking and not panic. We'll have to stay resilient and play in today, not yesterday and not tomorrow."
Despite the fact that resolving the issue will require an upgrade in focus and mental toughness, Dotson maintains that those characteristics aren't things that an athlete is either blessed with, or isn't. Acknowledging that it is indeed mental, Dotson believes it is something the Utes can learn through experience.
"I think even though it's a mind-set it's still something you can learn. After a while it has to become natural and turn into a mind-set," he offered. "That can't happen until you've learned it fully, so as a new team it's the biggest thing we have to do. But we can do it."
While many have grown weary of offerings such as inexperience or newness, the fact remains that this Utah team is still experiencing growing pains, and likely will continue to do so throughout the season.
While the Utes are not looking to make excuses any more than they are looking to hide from mistakes and shortcomings, the circumstances are what they are; Utah is a new team who has demonstrated some positives. That said it is still not playing at a high-Pac-12 level, and still needs a great deal of improvement.
Likely weary of discussing it, Dotson offered up a perspective as level-headed as any out there.
"If we were sitting here at 10-1, we'd be feeling pretty good about ourselves, to a point that might not be good for us. That might mean that we didn't face very much adversity, or didn't learn anything about ourselves," Dotson philosophized. "So I would say that [these issues] are both a blessing and a curse. At least it came early in the season, and we're aware of it. We've had some time to work on it instead of having it just pop up unexpectedly in the middle of conference play."