Utes end season with blowout loss

S-Moops Colby Patterson
Delon Wright gets blocked by Arizona defense at the second Pac-12 Championship game last week in Las Vegas, Nev. Photo by Brent Uberty.

Delon Wright gets blocked by Arizona defense at the second Pac-12 Championship game last week in Las Vegas, Nev. Photo by Brent Uberty.

Two years ago, Utah came into its first Pac-12 Tournament as an afterthought, and it was no surprise when the Utes lost by 12 to Colorado in the opening round.

Utah’s rise back to respectability has come at a meteoric rate, with each passing victory and even each heartbreaking loss causing expectations for the program to grow. So when the Utes were blown out 71-39 by No. 4 Arizona last Thursday to end their 2014 conference tournament in the second round, some Utah fans were left in a stunned silence.

The blowout loss ended any hope of an NCAA Tournament berth, and it appears to have made the NIT sour on the Utes as well. When the NIT bracket was announced Sunday night, Utah, which was expected to be as high as a two seed, found itself as a five seed with a road date with Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night.

The low seed in what many consider the “consolation” tournament does serve to show that while expectations in the Salt Lake Valley have increased for the Utes, the national perception of the program is of one that’s still rebuilding, though that rebuild is going quicker than most people thought. Utah finished Pac-12 play with a .500 record at 9-9, beat multiple teams that earned berths in the Big Dance and suffered narrow losses against numerous squads, including the Wildcats.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak has never wanted to talk about moral victories after close losses, and Thursday’s loss to Arizona might have shown why. The coach is setting his sights on something greater.

“I think, in my mind anyway, and I shared with the team, [Arizona] is a little bit of a vision of where we need to be,” he said immediately after the game against the Wildcats. “Where, if we want to be that good, we’ve got to be a lot better and more physical and so forth.”

The Utes aren’t headed to the NCAA Tournament, and they aren’t getting the home opener in the NIT they may have been expecting, but when they head to Northern California on Tuesday to face the Gaels, it will be for a postseason tournament, a destination few thought they could reach this early in Krystkowiak’s tenure.

Tuesday’s contest is slated to begin 9 p.m. MST and will be televised on ESPN2. If Utah comes out on top in that game, it will face the winner of Minnesota’s showdown on Tuesday night against High Point. The Golden Gophers are the No. 1 seed in the Utes’ portion of the bracket.

r.miller@chronicle.utah.edu