In the wake of a 31 point loss to a Stanford team who had previously won just two conference games, the Utah basketball team took a day off to re-group, and returned to practice Tuesday to face the remainder of its season.
If nothing else, head coach Larry Krystkowiak promised immediately after the blowout that his team would not quit or fail to compete in another game. Without promising any guarantee of future success, Krystkowiak did basically guarantee that his team would not fail to work or play hard for its remaining 10 games.
With that in mind, Ute players, were told to expect a tough, physical and demanding practice Tuesday and throughout the week, something akin to a football practice, rather than a basketball practice.
It didn't disappoint. The Utes have shown that they are sorely in need of some toughening up, if only mentally. For the Runnin' Utes, Tuesday was the first step in turning what's left of their season around. In order to do that, Utah is getting back to basics.
"We have to simplify it all. We have to get back to controlling the things that we can control. To do that we've got to get back to ground zero, and take it all the way back there," junior point guard Glen Dean said resolutely. "We need to sharpen up on our defensive identity and principals. We need to get back to that gritty, hard-core defense. We're going to stop teams, and that will create good offensive possessions"
Dean, along with Coach Krystkowiak and other Ute players this week have referenced their surprisingly strong showing in early Pac-12 play as a possible pitfall mid-season. While the Utes have won just one game in conference play and suffered close losses at Arizona State and Arizona and versus UCLA may have given the Utes a misguided confidence, or over-confidence.
"I think maybe the expectations were that we weren't going to compete with Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, and to lose those three games by a total of seven points that maybe the assumption was made that the USCs and Washington States of the world were going to be games that we were just going to roll with," said Krystkowiak.
"We gave up 80+ points to Stanford Sunday night, and not to take anything away from Stanford, because they came in here and embarrassed us," said Dean almost incredulously. "But in our first four outings, we came out and played great defense, which kept us in those games against some of the top tier teams."
Dean's statement was genuine, but also telling in that the tone conveys that the Utes don't think they had any business losing that game, much less by 31 points. In the statement, there is an air of confidence, or over-confidence.
So perhaps for this team, who has shown flashes of talent but not earned anything as yet, there is a sense of entitlement. Though better than most expected, Utah still lacks the talent and depth that other Pac-12 teams enjoy and the simple fact is it must out-work and out-hustle every team it faces. Utah is literally the perennial under-dog, but has come out like the favorite since the UCLA loss, as if merely showing up were enough.
Gone are the blue-collar, gutsy efforts and days of balanced, consistent scoring fueled by defense, ball security and sharing the ball only to be replaced by poor offensive, and defensive efforts, inconsistency, too many turnovers, poor ball movement and stagnant offense. Just as quickly as new, exciting young players hit their short-lived pinnacles, they dimmed and faded, much like the Ute basketball season.
Painfully realizing it all, Dean and his teammates say they have taken a good, long look in the mirror and didn't like what they saw.
"Sunday night, I think I can speak for almost all of the guys when I say that none of us probably slept that night. Monday, at least for me, it was hard for me just to come on campus and show my face," admitted a pained Dean.
For a team who has shown some positives but fails to sustain anything for extended periods of time, the Utes have claimed to know and understand what it might take to find success but ultimately have not found it as yet.
Again saying all the right things, Dean insists that this loss will be the catalyst for change, and that the Utes have re-committed to the process. When asked whether or not the latest low point could be considered a wake up call, Dean immediately responded.
"It better be," he stated.
Expanding further on the after shocks of the stunning loss, Dean talked of wounded pride, and letting down Utah fans.
"I'm going to be honest. That loss really hurt us, hurt me. It was embarrassing. It was a Sunday game, and we had fans coming to the gym with a full blizzard outside. People put themselves at risk to support us, and we come out and give a performance like that," he said. "I felt bad for the fans that came out and witnessed that, and I apologize to those that came out, and to everyone that supports Utah athletics. That was embarrassing. I hope it was the wake up call that we needed, and if it isn't I don't know what could wake us up."
The Utes came out Tuesday impassioned and with some tempers flaring and frustration oozing through the cracks of a normally smooth and unflappable facade. However the productive, tense, but finally genuine session showed some signs of life in a team that seemingly understands what is now at stake. In a sense, today was the first day of the rest of their lives - or season, just to make it less dramatic. The point is, for the Utes, Tuesday represented a clean slate and new opportunity.
"I'm grateful to have another day [to play basketball] and once we get over the sting of that loss, it's a feeling of being grateful to have another opportunity. We looked at the film, it's all there and it all makes sense, it can all be fixed," Dean said optimistically. "We have to get back to the things that kept us competing with some of those teams, and we have a lot of basketball left. So it all starts with today, leading into Colorado on Saturday, then the next practice, the next and then the next game. But it starts all over again today."