Utah's Delon Wright is fouled from the right by Washington's Andrew Andrews with Jernard Jarreau (21) behind in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
John Froschauer
March 11, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak lit into his team as hard as he ever has during his four years after it lost 77-68 to Washington in the regular-season finale. The Utes were ranked as high as No. 8 in the country at one point of the season, but lost three of the final five games to fall to No. 17 and limp into the Pac-12 tournament.

Utah was playing No. 5 Arizona for a share of the conference lead a week and a half ago before falling to the third seed in the tournament behind Oregon.

Krystkowiak insists their problems are simple to solve, but no team wants to play its worst basketball heading into the postseason.

''However you want to diagnose it and try to explain it's pretty much irrelevant,'' Krystkowiak said. ''Everybody's got a story this time of year.

''We've had a number of breakdowns. I'm not into excuses. I don't care who we've played. The reality is if we want to keep playing and ... accomplish some pretty cool goals we've set for ourselves, the excuses are right out the window. It's going to take a little bit more toughness physically. It's going to take some more toughness mentally.''

The Utes are still in the midst of their best season under Krystkowiak. They had a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament for the first time and open play on Thursday. The team is led by first-team all-conference guard Delon Wright, but its success has come from an all-hands-on-deck approach and ferocious defense.

That defense wasn't so frightening in the last five games. Krystkowiak said they didn't defend one-on-one. Utah also lost the turnover battle in four of those five games for a combined 47-36 disadvantage.

Players said the difference from the 21-4 start is as simple as focus and energy.

''I think we got a little bit too comfortable with our situation,'' freshman center Jakob Poeltl. ''We were at a very good spot at that time and we just got too comfortable, we lost a couple road games that we probably shouldn't have lost just because we didn't bring the energy, turned the ball over, things we didn't do earlier in the season when we won most of our games.

''It's basically all about the mindset.''

The wins piled up fairly easy for the Utes and that may have been the problem. They still haven't allowed a team to score more than 72 points. Only three wins were by single digits and most were complete blowouts.

''We didn't care what anyone thought of us at the beginning of the season,'' guard Brandon Taylor said. ''We still had things to prove at the beginning of the season. ... Now I feel like we've kind of been on cruise control a little bit. We haven't been playing as hard as we needed to and as hard as we should.

''We don't want to finish this season with a sour note. We've worked way, way too hard. We've put in so much work to receive the success that we're getting now. It's almost quite dumb to let it all go and just live on, `Oh, we were Top 25 this season.' No, we've got so much more to conquer and so much more to go.''

Taylor and Poeltl said the team's confidence hasn't been shaken, but it's hard to imagine that no doubt would creep in when playing your worst basketball of the season at the most crucial time. Common thought was that Utah could be as high as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament if the Utes remained ranked in the top 10, but the recent swoon will likely drop them below a No. 4.

Krystkowiak is positive the team doesn't need any major scheme reconstruction. He believes the answer is just playing harder than their opponent. And it must happen now.

''It should be easy to hit the switch,'' Krystkowiak said. ''We've done it before. It can be done. We're not going to be defined by the last five games of conference. Hopefully there's some games left and that's what we'll be defined on, how we finish.''

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