Runnin’ Utes earn No. 3 seed in Midwest, face Fresno State in Denver

PC4 Rishi Deka, Daily Utah Chronicle

Sunday afternoon, the Runnin’ Utes were placed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed. They will face No.14 Fresno State on Thursday night in Denver, Colo.

This is two spots better than last year, when they were a No. 5 seed, but head coach Larry Krystkowiak isn’t focused on that. He knows he is going to prepare his team the same way he would for any other opponent and that they can not slack off. All he was paying attention to in the Selection Show was who the Utes would play, where it would be and when the game was so he could plan a course of action.

“My only reaction is that we’re going to be playing a really good team,” Krystkowiak said. “I didn’t think twice about the number. We’re happy to be a part of it and just kind of ready to jump in and start working.”

Although there are plenty of differences from last year’s team compared to this year’s team, Brandon Taylor is excited to return to the tournament. As a senior, he wants to end his year on one last good run.

The higher seeding wasn’t a defined goal for Taylor, but one of his actual goals was to improve from last season, and he feels like he did just that. As for the entire team, he just wanted to see it reach new heights, and so far it has. He is soaking up the sheer joy of it all, and it was only when the team was officially dancing that he got over Saturday night’s loss.

Utah Utes guard Brandon Taylor speaks at the Hunstman Basketball Facility following Selection Sunday 2016 on Mar.13th, 2016. (Rishi Deka, Daily Utah Chronicle)

Utah Utes guard Brandon Taylor speaks at the Hunstman Basketball Facility following Selection Sunday 2016 on Mar.13th, 2016. (Rishi Deka, Daily Utah Chronicle)

“To be here for a second time and have an opportunity like this again, that’s a tremendous feeling,” Taylor said. “We have to be dialed in, but I’m excited, and that’s what March Madness is all about.”

Utah dropped its most recent game in the Pac-12 Championship to the Oregon Ducks, the No. 1 seed in the West, by 31 points, but Krystkowiak is a big believer in the saying “everything happens for a reason.”

While, of course, Krystkowiak likes to see his team come out on the winning side, this loss may be just what it needed. The game showed a lot of areas where the Utes can improve, such as limiting turnovers, and they can even use it as momentum against Fresno State, who just won the Mountain West with its win over San Diego State on Saturday.

“I would never wish for us to lose a game, but upon further reflection, after what happened to us last night, I don’t know that if it’s a bad thing,” Krystkowiak said.

At the beginning of Pac-12 play, the Utes weren’t playing so well as they opened up with a 1-3 record. They finished the regular season with a 13-5 conference record and were even riding a nine-game winning streak until their loss to the Ducks.

Krystkowiak thinks this speaks to how well his team was able to turn it around, regroup and look forward instead of dwelling on the past.

“I give a lot of credit to our guys,” Krystkowiak said. “We had a couple of great meetings, and we started practicing hard, and guys didn’t give in or give up. This league is really challenging, and our guys stepped up and made some plays, started defending.”

Although those wins were great at the time for Utah, Krystkowiak has pretty much forgotten about them. All that matters is the road ahead and how it will play in the Round of 64.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with what we’ve done — it’s what we’re going to try and do now,” Krystkowiak said. “I can’t say I’m comfortable with where we are. I’m kind of on edge. I’m ready to practice.”