SALT LAKE CITY — Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak was asked if he felt empathy for the state of Arizona athletics during his post-game press conference Thursday night after his team defeated the Wildcats 83-76.
Krystkowiak paused for a brief second and said: “I mean, come on.”
The question, which was not fully intended to evoke empathy from Krystkowiak, was more about the current state of affairs for a blue-chip program that is currently on a six-game losing streak and in 10th place in the Pac-12 standings with less than a month to go before the conference’s tournament in Las Vegas.
For many around the conference, including Krystkowiak, it’s hard to feel empathy for a program that has consistently dominated the conference and has attracted some of the best recruits. In short, Arizona can live with one less-than-ideal season as the rest of the conference revels in their misery.
Still, Krystkowiak took the high road and said he did feel some empathy for the Wildcats, particularly coach Sean Miller who is trying to navigate an unfamiliar and turbulent season.
“I don't think any of us would want to be doing anything else, but it's not always rosy; it's not always a fun business to be in and things can compound,” Krystkowiak said. “There's a lot of opinions, you know, out there. And sometimes when things don't go well or as well as you'd like, those people make a lot louder noise.”
That feeling can only go so far in the league, though, as Utah is looking to claim a first-round bye in the conference tournament — an improbable scenario for a team that was picked to finish eighth in the conference before the season started.
“Yeah, I do have some empathy, but this is a survival time for us and you certainly can't feel sorry for anybody,” Krystkowiak added. “They'll bounce back. They've got an incredible recruiting class coming in. I think it's an example of some cycles, some ups and downs.”
The question was asked about Arizona, but it might as well have been asked about Krystkowiak's team this season — or at least the “louder noise” coming from a select group of fans that are frustrated by Utah’s lack of NCAA Tournament berths in the last few seasons.
Utah entered conference play with a .500 record and had several issues to fix before anyone would consider them a tournament-bound team. There was question whether Utah would even be good enough to make the lesser NIT.
Undoubtedly, Krystkowiak has heard the sentiment and has seen firsthand the attendance numbers fall in the Huntsman Center as fan support wanes. He knows that at any time athletic director Mark Harlan could pull the plug on his coaching tenure and start over. So empathy? What about empathy for him?
Nobody feels sorry for Krystkowiak, and he’s fine with that — even though it’s been a bumpy ride for him, too. Still, his team is contending for a first-round bye in the conference tournament despite the early issues, and leads the conference in offensive efficiency (111.7), effective field goals (57.2 percent) and 3-point percentage (39.8 percent) with three freshmen in the starting lineup.
Those metrics are the best Utah has ever seen since joining the conference. The closest comparison is Utah’s 2015 team, which featured three current NBA players — Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma — and was second in the conference in offensive efficiency (113.6), and first in eFG (55.4 percent) and 3P% (40.3 percent).
So while Krystkowiak can feel empathy with Arizona, he’s also not letting his perceived problems with the season define his team. And until they’re mathematically out of the equation, Utah will continue to move toward locking up an NCAA Tournament bid, which can likely only come with a Pac-12 Tournament championship win.
In the meantime, Utah will continue to fight.