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Rising Stars: Top college basketball players prepare for NCAA tournament
1:11 | College Basketball
Rising Stars: Top college basketball players prepare for NCAA tournament
Friday March 11th, 2016

LAS VEGAS — Stephen Curry is the guard every player wants to be right now, so Utah’s Brandon Taylor took the reference his coach made Thursday night with a smile stretched across his face.

“I mean, it’s definitely not a bad thing,” said the 5'10" senior. “But I’ve got a lot of work to do before I can even be in the same sentence as him.”

The confidence part, though—Taylor has that much down.

With 1:52 left in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals against USC, Utah’s double-digit lead trimmed to three and the Trojans gaining momentum, Taylor rose up and launched a deep three. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak took a drink of water at the same time and later said that, no, he did not almost choke on it when Taylor let the ball go from approximately 24 feet.

Swish.

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“I’ll tell you what, the last month of the season Brandon has provided us with a little bit of that,” Krystkowiak said. “I’m certainly not going to compare him to Steph Curry, but if there’s one guy on our team that’s got some of that deep range and has a lot of confidence...”

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No. 12 Utah won 80–72 on Thursday night at MGM Grand Garden Arena, eliminating the Trojans (21–12, 9–9 Pac-12) from the conference tournament. USC heads back to Los Angeles to await a likely at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. In Vegas, Utah will try to continue the streak that Krystkowiak swears his players aren’t that aware of: Thursday was the Utes’ eighth consecutive victory. They’ve been on a roll since Feb. 10, reeling off wins in one of the toughest conferences in America after a troubling road trip at Oregon when they dropped two in a row, one of them a heartbreaker to Oregon State. That feels like so long ago though, players say. Any confidence that might have been shaken after that brutal trip—Krystkowiak said that when “you’re on the road four or five days and you lose the first one, it feels like you’re on the road two weeks”—has returned.

That Taylor was 1 of 6 from long distance before that shot Thursday night did not matter. As a child, Taylor liked to go into his backyard and bomb what were, according to him, all game-winners. “I’d like to think I was someone else,” he said, and of course, because he’s a Los Angeles native, Taylor usually pretended that someone else played for the Lakers. “I thought I was Kobe. Auto-clutch.”

And then he’d nail a few more, because he wanted “everyone to see the replay.”

The Utes (25–7, 13–5) advance to play Cal on Friday night in Vegas, one step closer to a goal to which they’ve spent 153 days counting down. At the beginning of the season, Krystkowiak wrote “154” on the left corner of his dry erase board, and “0” in the right corner. The left number signified the numbers of days until the Pac-12 tournament championship game, and the right number was Utah’s total wins. Over the last month, they’ve crept closer to each other.

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Some coaches dismiss conference tournament titles as fluff, as not a necessary stop on the way to a deep March Madness run. Krystkowiak sees it differently. “This has been an annual goal,” said the fifth-year coach, whose program has never won a Pac-12 tournament championship. “Maybe, if you’re a team or a coach that participates a lot as an at-large, that knows you’re always going to get in, you become cynical, but me, I love this time of year.”

So do his kids—even if they don’t outwardly express it. Asked afterward about the mood in the locker room, a stoic Jakob Poeltl (14 points, eight rebounds, four assists) said “the mood in the locker room is great” and Kyle Kuzma (career-high 23 points on 11-of-12 shooting) concurred, with neither changing their expression.

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It’s not that they’re bored of winning, Krystkowiak said, or on cruise control. They just know this is merely a warm-up for what could be a historic weekend.

“I think we’ve got a mature group that doesn’t put their guard down, and these guys want to taste some success,” he said. “They’ve figured out how to do that.”

It starts with defense. Even in an era when everyone wants to talk about points and scoring efficiency, Krystkowiak preaches defense first, encouraging his players to “go for kills,” which in Utah hoops language means five defensive stops in a row. Having almost matched their win total from last year (Utah went 26–9 and lost to Duke in the Sweet 16 in 2014–15), Krystkowiak says the Utes are in “unchartered territory.” He’d like to be the underdog and play with an edge, but acknowledges that his kids are walking the line between edge and expectation.

That starts, of course, by oozing confidence. Just look at his point guard with the big-shot ability. Asked if 24 feet was an accurate distance for the score that gave Utah breathing room, Taylor cocked his head and gave a little smirk.

“Nah,” he said. “More like 26 feet.” 

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