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SALT LAKE CITY — Northwest Nazarene, Coppin State, UC Riverside, Prairie View A&M. All of them produce a collective yawn in terms of competitive college basketball. Yet, there they were, staples of Utah’s home basketball schedule so far.
The road schedule, which really consisted of only two such games this fall, has not been any better. No wonder the Utes played before thousands of empty seats at the Huntsman Center.
Without question, Utah’s nonconference schedule this season has needed sizzle. The easy, most obvious way to improve it would have been to play BYU, and maybe mix in Weber State and Utah State.
Unfortunately for basketball fans in the state, one man thinks otherwise. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak wants nothing to do with the Cougars.
In a well-publicized decision one year ago, Krystkowiak canceled the series with BYU after saying the rivalry had become too toxic. The most recent game between the two teams saw BYU’s Nick Emery punch Utah’s Brandon Taylor late in the game.
One year later, even though the two teams will play each other next season in the newly created Beehive Classic, Krystkowiak has not softened his stance. The Beehive tournament involves a rotation of in-state teams playing each other.
“I wouldn't play BYU if I had an opportunity to at any point, but we're going to in the Beehive Classic,” Krystkowiak said after a practice last month. “I think that's going to make some people happy."
Going against decades of tradition in a basketball-rich state, Krystkowiak remains defiant about playing any of the in-state programs. Too bad one person has that much power to ruin a good thing.
All of Utah’s Division I basketball programs, including Utah Valley and Weber State, should play each other. Ideally, it would be on a home-and-home basis.
"I'm not going to schedule everyone in the state of Utah so our fans will be happy," he said. "It's a business decision; there's a lot of moving parts to it. ... I just hope at least Utah fans will respect our process and what we're going through, and hopefully not have too many complaints as to what we're doing."
So there you have it. The boss has spoken, and it doesn’t sound as if he’s changing his mind any time soon. What was good enough for Rick Majerus doesn’t work for Krystkowiak.
Along the way, the decision is hurting college basketball, a sport that barely registers during the first month of the season. For interest's sake, the in-state teams need to play each other annually. Not playing the in-state teams kills a chance for the programs to build momentum and fan enthusiasm going into each team’s respective conference seasons.
Steve Cleveland, a former longtime BYU coach, said the legacy of the in-state games goes far beyond any one coach or school. He said he believes the programs owe it to the future of basketball in the state.
As a coach charged with the monumental task of rebuilding a downtrodden BYU program in the late 1990s, Cleveland had no problem taking his teams to Logan and Ogden to play Utah State and Weber State, respectively. He said he understands all the reasons for not playing — egos, scheduling conflicts, recruiting advantages, etc. — but pointed to the bigger picture.
“Scheduling has become a little bit more difficult,” he said. “Coaches get more control of that schedule now, whereas in the past, athletic directors had more control of that.
“But I think those games are so important, not just to the fans and the institutions, but to the young people who play this game in the state, for the development of young players. When they get to watch those local teams play each other, it helps grow the game in the state of Utah. I hope that we’ll get back to where they can play. Those games are really important.”
Apparently, not for everybody.