SALT LAKE CITY—There are far more questions than answers for Utah Basketball as the 2016-17 season rapidly decrescendoed.
At times, the team looked the part of an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, confirmed by the eyes of college analysts on and off the airwaves. But other times, like Tuesday night against Boise State (20-11, 12-6 MWC) in the NIT, the Utes (20-12, 11-7 Pac-12) let leads and energy melt away against seemingly inferior teams, leaving deflating feelings of underachievement.
“You can look back, there’s a lot of different ways you can describe our season,” said head coach Larry Krystkowiak. “I’m not going to get into extremes one way or the other. There were a lot of ifs and buts along the way.”
The Utes held as big of a lead as eleven points in the second half before a momentum-changing pair of turnovers resulted in a 37-21 Bronco run to close the game, ending with a 73-68 final score. Utah turned the ball over 16 times, which turning into 17 Bronco points. BSU’s Chandler Hutchison scored a career-high 34 points.
“I’ve always said that I’ve never had a problem if somebody beats us,” said Krystkowiak, who coached a team to 20 wins for the fourth consecutive season. “I just feel like we beat ourselves.”
Utah jumped out early to a 14-6 lead, dominating out of the gate, but slipped in efficiency in the middle of the first half, allowing the Broncos to tie the game at 16. Ute fans were rewarded when JoJo Zamora blocked a layup, following it up with a triple on the other end. Kyle Kuzma matched his teammate’s block on the next possession, and Tyler Rawson tipped in a miss to give the Utes a 29-24 lead and some breathing room.
But a carbon-copy lull showed in the second half for the Utes, when undersized Boise State extinguished Utah’s second half spark, chipping away and overcoming Utah’s leads.
Utah has found their point cushions and accompanying momentum slipping out of their fingers several times over this season.
Asked if the team lacked a vocal leader this season to counter such swings, Krystkowiak said, “Yeah. That’s a piece that we’ve been talking about all year. It’s a little competitive spirit, captain, you know, the no-brainer where everybody just knows you’re kind of the heartbeat of the team. I think that’s been an issue for us. We’ve got a lot of faraway, distance eyes, glares. We need that.”
Junior forward Kuzma, who was uncommitted on leaning toward or away from the beckoning NBA, said he’s attempted to fill that role.
“Honestly, I don’t really want to hear the leadership thing,” said Kuzma, who finished with a team-high 21 points, complemented by nine rebounds. “I’ve tried my hardest all year to become one and really go out of my way to try to do that, because that’s what this team needed. At the end of the day, it’s just having a young team. Not too many people have played at this level, and know the seriousness of what it takes sometimes. We’ll be alright.”
Still, Utah finished fourth in a conference led by three high-octane teams, which Krystkowiak noted was tangible progress for his young team.
The Utes will graduate only senior Lorenzo Bonam, as fellow senior Gabe Bealer is expected to gain one more year of eligibility.
Larry Krystkowiak Postgame Press Conference:
Kyle Kuzma Postgame Press Conference: