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SALT LAKE CITY — The Runnin' Utes have taken leaps and bounds from where is was the past few years. And much of that credit goes to head coach Larry Krystkowiak and his determination to bring basketball back to the forefront of the university's athletic programs.
Fan apathy toward Utah basketball hit an all-time high as head coach Jim Boylen made his exit and Krystkowiak made his entrance. The hiring of Krystkowiak was not a big enough hire for many critics who thought the program would need a boost from a big name to keep it from moving into further irrelevancy, if such a thing were possible.
Now, three years into his tenure with Utah, fans are starting to come around to the idea of Utah basketball. Even bigger-named recruits are starting to pay a little more attention to a once-desolate program. Brekkott Chapman, the Roy High four-star athlete was ranked 46th in the nation according to ESPN.com, and Kyle Kuzman, also a four-star athlete, are just two of the recruits Utah picked up for the 2014 season.
"Coach Krystkowiak has been dedicated to me," Chapman said on signing day. "That was a big part of it. It shows that they were dedicated to me and that I was the guy they wanted."
I just kind of knew that it was going to get back to the point where fans would want to start coming back or where we can start getting the players we have. I knew it was going to get back to that point — just have to have confidence and stick with it.
"I built a good relationship with coach Krystkowiak and (assistant) coach (DeMarlo) Slocum," Kuzma said. "They made me feel comfortable and I felt good about where the program was headed. I couldn't wait to get to Utah and get started."
The Runnin' Utes have a 7-1 record in non-conference play, with their only loss coming to Boise State on the road — a tournament-bound team that is returning several starters. And although Utah has one of the easiest schedules, the Runnin' Utes are trending up and show signs of improvement.
"As each game goes on we keep developing more chemistry," said junior Delon Wright. "Guys are stepping up. I think we're developing a good chemistry before going into the Pac-12."
In previous seasons the Utes would have likely struggled to have a 7-1 record against the same opponents. A team like Boise State or Fresno State would have likely gotten the better of a Utah team that was in the midst of rebuilding.
However, the recent success is only making the Runnin' Utes fight harder.
"Our first six games of our schedule weren't overly demanding," Krystkowiak said. "On paper we were supposed to win all those games, so there's no complacency with us. We're fighting, scratching and clawing and just trying to keep getting better."
The wins are certainly nice to see for a once-storied program, but being close can only get a team so far. For Krystkowiak, winning and improving on seasons past is the only thing that matters.
"There's no such thing as a moral victory," Krystkowiak said. "We talked here for a couple of years that you're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as you think you are. It's just a matter of getting better and not making those same mistakes."
"I like our team. I like where we are right now, and that's all that I can control — the guys that we have," he added. "We've got some signees that will be here next summer, but beyond that it's a work in progress."
Although Krystkowiak doesn't necessarily believe in one team leader, sophomore Jordan Loveridge has been a constant for the program. Many questioned Loveridge's decision to sign with Utah given its foreseeable outlook, but Loveridge said he knew the program would be back in the spotlight eventually.
"I just kind of knew that it was going to get back to the point where fans would want to start coming back or where we can start getting the players we have." Loveridge said. "I knew it was going to get back to that point — just have to have confidence and stick with it."
The Runnin' Utes still have a long way to go, but the outlook is starting to look a bit brighter. The rest of the non-conference schedule for Utah is not too difficult, save Saturday's matchup against rival BYU, but conference play will be a difficult task.
Last season the Runnin' Utes were 5-18 in conference play, with a victory over No. 19 Oregon coming before a better-than-expected run in the Pac-12 tournament. Given the team's talent, Utah can win more games.
"I think we take from (our season) that no matter what team we're playing we have the guys, the talent to play with any team we face," Loveridge said.