Patrick Kinahan: Ute fans growing tired of basketball mediocrity

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SALT LAKE CITY — After his basketball team squandered another double-digit lead and lost the last game, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak in part attributed the latest setback to fatigue.

The players apparently were tired, having been forced to play four games in one week due to numerous schedule alterations caused by COVID-19. In the fourth game, the Utes blew a 15-point lead in losing to Cal, whose Pac-12 record was 1-6 before winning in the Huntsman Center.

"We just played four games in a week, which doesn't happen in college basketball," said Krystkowiak, clearly frustrated at his team's most recent lack of success.

If the Utes were indeed tired, they found common ground with the program's fans. This proud and passionate fan base, which is used to success across several generations, is tired of all the losing.

With a roster comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomores, the Utes were 17-14 last season and may have made the NIT if not for the COVID outbreak that canceled all postseason tournaments. So far this season, they are 5-6 and have lost five of their last six games, including three of the last four despite holding double-digit leads in each of them.

For a program that has made 29 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, these last four-plus seasons have been unacceptable. An occasional berth in the NIT as part of a rebuild is tolerable, but it can't be the high point for any extended period.

Yet, here we are with Krystkowiak at the helm. Utah's last berth in the NCAA Tournament came in the 2015-16 season, and the team this year doesn't appear good enough to make it this March.

Keep in mind, this is a program that routinely had been among the best in the West and regularly took up residence in the Top 25. Matching those NCAA tournaments, the Utes have won 29 regular-season conference championships.

From 1991 through 1999, the Utes won seven Western Athletic Conference championships under coach Rick Majerus. They followed it up by winning the Mountain West championship four times from 2000-05.

Maybe it was a pipedream for the program to continue the success it enjoyed under Majerus, who won 16 NCAA Tournament games and reached the championship game in 1998. But it is crazy to think Utah would be at the level it is since joining the more prestigious Pac-12.

Utah's struggles in the Pac-12 actually predate Krystkowiak's arrival, which coincides with the athletic program joining the conference in 2010-11 after leaving the Mountain West. To his credit, the former NBA journeyman took over a program that was in shambles and did a remarkable job rebuilding it.

Showing steady improvement in the coach's first three seasons, the Utes reached the Sweet 16 in his fourth year. They followed it up by advancing to the second round in 2015-16 before starting the current dry spell.

Krystkowiak's early success led to a contract extension that pays him a reported $4 million annually through the 2023-24 season. The contract ranks among the top 15 nationally, but the obvious problem is Utah's return on the investment comes up short.

At some point, there's got to be change. Clearly, athletic director Mark Harlan can't sit idle and watch an historically outstanding program continue to slide into mediocrity.

Whether that change involves replacing Krystkowiak remains open for debate. Given Utah's financial state, which includes a $35 million budget deficit, Harlan might not be inclined to pay the hefty nearly $10 million buyout.

Since succeeding Chris Hill three years ago, Harlan has backed Krystkowiak during public interviews. In the summer before last season, after the program was penalized for breaking NCAA recruiting rules, Harlan praised Krystkowiak for his integrity and leadership ability.

Not even all the players transferring out of the program, which has created an ever-changing roster, has been enough to cause Harlan to publicly waver. In a statement of fact, Harlan cites the revolving door nature of college basketball.

The problem is, Utah basketball fans are tired of hearing it all.

More from Patrick Kinahan:

Patrick Kinahan

About the Author: Patrick Kinahan

Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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