The Utah Utes basketball program currently ranks 12th in the country in all-time wins. They were in the 1998 championship and actually led Kentucky at the half. They play in an arena that hosted arguably the most famous game ever played.
But this season, their basketball team is bad. Not bad in the way that DePaul basketball is bad, but bad in a way that could be truly historic for a program of such prominence. While I’d still put it in the “extremely unlikely” category, the Utes have an outside shot at rolling through 30 games against Division-I teams without a victory.
Larry Krystkowiak is in his first season as head coach, and his arrival in Salt Lake City didn’t go so well. In the spring, Krystko lost the services of Will Clyburn (Iowa State), Shawn Glover (Oral Roberts), and J.J. O’Brien (San Diego State), who all decided to transfer after the coaching change. In addition, shot-blocker extraordinaire David Foster broke his foot in the Utes’ exhibition loss to Adams State and may miss the season. The transfers left Krystkowiak to fill his rosters with unheralded freshmen and junior college recruits after he arrived. That, combined with Foster’s injury, has been a disastrous formula.
So much so, that just eight games into the season it appears the Utah could challenge Georgia Tech’s 4-23 effort in the 1980-81 season for the worst performance by a team in a power conference. For some perspective, the Yellow Jackets’ wins came against Flagler, the University of the South, Presbyterian, and Newberry, none of whom I believe were Division I at the time. For good measure they suffered a 23-point loss to somebody called Baptist. Their ACC losses were by the following margins: 11, 26, 11, 25, 37, 24, 40, 15, 8, 14, 30, 41, 27, and 25. They concluded the season with a 29-point loss to fourth-ranked Virginia in the first round of the ACC tournament.
I am attracted to the oddities in this sport. Or maybe just losers. Four seasons ago when Oregon State was making a run at going winless in the Pac-10, I dutifully watched their late might appearances on TV, savoring their efforts to try and avoid dubious perfection. Thus, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to head to the Huntsman Center on Wednesday night to investigate what, to me anyway, is one of the most fascinating situations in the sport at the moment. I went to check out the Utes’ game against Cal State Fullerton, a team that Utah figured to have a good shot of competing against.
At least that was the thinking before their leading scorer (and national usage leader) Jiggy Watkins was suspended for essentially showing up late to practice. I guess I didn’t see this as a completely negative development. Take a very influential player off of a very bad team and there could be the potential for improvement, right? Well, no, that’s not exactly how it worked out. The Titans scored the game’s first 14 points and weren’t seriously threatened after that, building the lead to 17 by half and 31 at the final buzzer, the worst margin in 42 years of basketball at the Huntsman Center. Mind you, not to a top 25 team but to a team I currently have projected to go 9-7 in the Big West.
Following the game, I found myself reflecting on the situation. A perfect storm has hit the Huntsman Center that only hits a D-I power conference program once in a great while. While players on other teams will be moaning and groaning about various things for the rest of the season, all of those players will have it better than those playing for Utah. At least other teams will be experiencing the possibility of winning on a frequent basis this season.
Surely by now, the players and fans associated with the program must understand that this season is different from any they’ve ever seen before. Expectations will be lowered by all parties involved, but how far do you lower them until it gets insulting? The Utes will take on BYU tomorrow in a game they will be a prohibitive underdog in. They’ll be favored in only one more game this season – next Friday’s home game against Idaho State – and even then it won’t be by much.
Fortunately for their efforts at winning, Watkins’ suspension lasted only one game. While his presence doesn’t change the team’s circumstances appreciably, it does improve their odds of winning another game or three. Even for a bad team, it’s awfully difficult to go winless in conference. And because they are so far behind everybody else, Utah figures to improve more as a team the rest of this season than anybody else in the Pac 12. So it’s still premature to believe a 30-game losing streak to end the season is possible, isn’t it?
One positive here is that it doesn’t have to take long to improve in college hoops. Georgia Tech was in the Elite Eight four years after its historic season. Four seasons after going 1-27 in 1988-89, George Washington was in the Sweet Sixteen. And BYU made the NCAA tournament four years after going 1-25 in 1996-97. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this season, Utah will finish dead last in their inaugural Pac-12 campaign. Nonetheless, I feel an odd sense of anticipation for the remainder of the season. There’s the potential for history in the making and it will be interesting to see whether Utah can avoid that or not.