Larry Krystkowiak was right to want to protect his players, but canceling the Utah-BYU series was not the only solution.

By Seth Davis
January 13, 2016

We begin this week’s Twitterbag with a query from the Beehive State.

Was Utah’s reason for canceling their series with BYU legitimate? “Toxic” could describe just about any rivalry, couldn't it? — Brice Crowther (@bcrow3)

I wanted to give Larry Krystkowiak the benefit of the doubt. I really did. He had a lengthy press conference on Monday, and I was hoping he would reveal a worthwhile justification for his decision to scuttle the annual Utah-BYU series. But he didn’t.

The basic thrust of his reasoning has remained consistent. On Monday, he said the series, which has only been interrupted once since 1909, has gotten too “venomous and toxic,” and is therefore too dangerous for his players. “I am concerned about the potential for serious injury in the current atmosphere of this rivalry,” he said in his prepared opening statement. “Compounding the problem for me is what I consider to be a lack of remorse after the behavior, both in things said and left unsaid, and I have no reason to believe this pattern of behavior will change on its own.”

Krystkowiak was referring specifically, but not exclusively, to last November, when BYU guard Nick Emery hit Utah’s Brandon Taylor and then stepped over Taylor and jawed at him. Emery was suspended a game and issued a public apology the next day. Krystkowiak complained on Monday that when Krystkowiak went onto the court to see if Taylor was O.K., one of BYU’s players told him to get back on the bench. Apparently this hurt the coach’s feelings.

I grant that there has been a lot of acrimony over the course of this rivalry. And you know what? That’s what makes it so wonderful. That passion, that edge, that neighborly tension, is what compels us to watch.

It was especially odd that Krystkowiak expressed worry that he might be unable to control his own anger during future meetings. During his nine years as a player in the NBA, Krystkowiak was subjected to his fair share of fines and suspensions for taking part in altercations. On Monday, he said he wanted to end the BYU series partly because he was “protecting myself from myself.” He added, “I don’t know how I would come across with our players in the week leading up to the BYU game, maybe with a little bit of the toxin and venom that I have inside me. It puts me in a bit of a quandary.”

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty

With all do respect, if Krystkowiak is that concerned about controlling his own temper, maybe he is in the wrong business.

Look, I don’t doubt that Krystkowiak’s concerns are well founded, and I certainly applaud a coach who wants to protect the welfare of his players. But to cancel the series, or even suspend it temporarily, strikes me as an extremely drastic remedy. There are plenty of other options available. Maybe the game could be played at a neutral site, with fans from both sides being equally represented. That’s how Illinois and Missouri do it with their annual Braggin’ Rights game. Or maybe the two teams could participate in a dinner or breakfast or some type of public event that would allow them to mingle a little bit, maybe raise some money for charity. That would defuse some of the tension.

Or maybe the two presidents could issue a joint statement calling for more civility and enlist the help of student-leaders to monitor fan behavior. Or maybe the two coaches should get together and agree to tell their players to cut out the rough stuff. If they throw a punch or an unwarranted elbow, they’re gonna sit a couple of games. That would serve as a pretty strong deterrent.

But the fact that Krstkowiak (with the support of his athletic director, Chris Hill, and his president, David Pershing) chose to take an axe to the series leads the cynic in me to believe that this is not really about protecting his players at all. It’s about gaining a competitive edge. Though the rivalry has been amazingly even (after all these years, BYU leads 129–128), there is no doubt Utah is the big brother right now, especially since it moved to a Power Five conference. Utah and BYU compete for many of the same recruits, so Utah has very little incentive to give BYU this kind of platform. That’s why BYU coach Dave Rose voiced such displeasure at Krystkowiak’s decision. He needs this game more than Krystkowiak does, and they both know it. If the desire to seek a competitive advantage was part of Krystkowiak’s reasoning, then he should say so. To do otherwise isn’t just foolish, it’s disingenuous.

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A little more than four years ago, the so-called Crosstown Shootout between city rivals Cincinnati and Xavier ended in the ugliest college basketball brawl I have witnessed in my lifetime. Eight players were handed multi-game suspensions as a result. Many people called for the series to end, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed. The game was moved to an off-campus arena in Cincinnati for two years, and last May a 10-year contract was signed to return it to campuses. That situation was a lot direr than the one that confronted Utah and BYU, yet it was handled much, much better.

Again, I am not saying Krystkowiak’s concerns are not legitimate. But he should recognize that this is not just about him or his current players. For more than a century, the BYU-Utah game has been a cause for great celebration for basketball fans in that state. It is also a major boon for college basketball during a time of year when the sport has a hard time garnering attention. I was hoping against hope that Krystkowiak would use Monday’s press conference to announce that he had had a change of heart, but instead he dug in deeper. In doing so, he is hurting his players, his program and his state a lot more than he is protecting any of them.

Now on to the rest of the bag ...

Do you have any update on Amile Jefferson? [I know Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] likes to keep injuries quiet. Still back later rather than sooner? — Jayson Moyer (@thejaysonmoyer)

I don’t know how late Jefferson will be back, but it won’t be very soon. He elected not to have surgery on his broken foot, so his timetable will be dictated by how quickly he heals. He is out of a walking boot but he is still on crutches, and therefore basically inactive.

Jefferson is being monitored and X-rayed regularly. Even if he heals quickly, it will be a couple of additional weeks before he can get his body into shape (not to mention the rest of his game in rhythm). So at this point, the best-case scenario would have him returning in the middle of February.

However, if it takes him longer than expected to recover, Jefferson is going to have to seriously considering taking a medical redshirt. The only good news about his injury is that it happened early enough to render him that option. When he first got hurt, he immediately and emphatically said he wants to return this season, and as far as I know that is still the case. But the truth is, no one knows for sure when—or if—Jefferson will suit up again for the Blue Devils this season.

Speaking of UNLV, who would you tab as a good fit for their next [head coach]? — Cody Furtado (@codyfurtado)

I am not going to indulge in the usual laundry-listing here. Suffice to say, this job is going to draw a strong list of potential candidates. There are not a lot of high-level gigs in that part of the country, especially one with as many built-in advantages. The athletic department does not have a lot of money, and it has been more than 20 years since Jerry Tarkanian’s run crested in the desert, but UNLV is still a powerful brand in college basketball. And the school has a virtual minor league franchise right there in town at Findlay Prep, which was founded by Cliff Findlay, a former UNLV player and current booster of the program.

But let me tell you something, the decision to fire Dave Rice in the middle of the season really stinks. There is just no reason to make this change now when the school could have done it in a couple of months. Or it could have made the move last March, when Ben Howland was ready to step in. Why didn’t UNLV pull the trigger then? For one, it was wary of paying him the buyout. And second, Rice’s brother was the high school coach of the team’s prized freshman, Stephen Zimmerman, and firing Rice could have jeopardized Zimmerman’s desire to come to school there.

If the timing of this move wasn’t questionable enough, then consider the school’s decision to promote assistant Todd Simon to interim coach. UNLV had two other well-qualified members of the staff in Max Good, a longtime veteran with head coaching experience in college, and Stacey Augmon, a UNLV legend who only spent 15 years in the NBA as a player and another four as an assistant. Yet, the school went with Simon, who ... wait for it ... coached at Findlay Prep. Does Cliff Findlay get to select the color of the carpet in the locker room as well?

So like I said, this is still a good job, and UNLV will have the chance to make a solid hire. I just hope the next guy knows what he’s getting himself into.

Is Iowa State no longer a Final Four contender? — Wyatt Kaldenberg (@KaldenbergWyatt)

I don’t know that I was ever all that high on Iowa State as a Final Four contender, but I did think they would be better than they are right now. Yes, the coaching change hasn’t been easy, but the biggest problem the Cyclones face right now is lack of depth. They were already thin before 6’4” senior guard Naz Mitrou-Long was lost for the season due to lingering hip issues. Mitrou-Long got hurt at the same time Marquette transfer Deonte Burton became eligible, but it seems coach Steve Prohm has lost confidence in Burton as of late. Burton played well in the Cyclones’ loss at Texas Tuesday night, scoring 14 points, but he only played 16 minutes. In the previous two games, he scored a total of two points in 25 minutes.

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During the loss at Texas, all five starters played at least 34 minutes, and two of them played 40 or more. When you’re playing those kind of heavy minutes, you can’t expend too much energy at the defensive end. Texas shot 48.6% from the field and 41.2% from three. Baylor, which dominated the Cyclones in Ames last weekend, shot 52.3%.

I still think that on balance, it is better for a new coach to walk into Prohm’s situation, where there’s a lot of talent in the locker room, versus walking into a program that is so down that it’s hard to turn it around fast enough to please the fans. But it is not easy to come to a new place and coach a bunch of older guys who had a lot of success with the previous coach. Iowa State might not be quite as good as we thought a few weeks ago, but they’re not as bad as they’re playing. And their losses have been far from awful—by two points to UNI on a neutral court, by four points at Oklahoma, by five points to Baylor (albeit at home), and now by three points in overtime at Texas, a team which also beat North Carolina on that same floor.

Still, I imagine this little rough patch will give everyone on this team a glimpse of the abyss. From there, things can go one of two ways. I’m guessing things will get better, but the only folks who can make that happen are the guys in that locker room.

From what you’ve seen, is talent even in place for Syracuse to have a turnaround this season? — Chauncey (@LanceManyan41)

If Iowa State is suffering from limited depth, the Orange is suffering from almost none. I didn’t research this (my stat geeks out there should feel free!), but I’ll bet the Orange are the only team in the country that has five players who are averaging 31 or more minutes per game. That doesn’t include its starting center, DaJuan Coleman, who has never fully recovered (both physically and mentally) from his conga line of knee injuries.

The team’s other fatal flaw is that it is soft defensively up front. That’s where they miss Rakeem Christmas the most. When you don’t have that rim protector, the 2-3 zone becomes easy to penetrate, which affords a team like North Carolina the ability to carve it up.

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Still, let’s keep in mind this is the same group of guys who beat UConn and Texas A&M to win the Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving week. Mike Hopkins, who coached the team during Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension, was put in an impossible situation. As Boeheim said, Hopkins is a good coach, but this is Boeheim’s team. Well, Boeheim is back now, and that should give everyone an emotional boost. It won’t be easy for Boeheim to will this team into the NCAA tournament, but if anyone can do it, he can.

What in the world is wrong with Vanderbilt? Is it fixable? — Gary Hickerson (@Garyleeh88)

Right now, I’d say Vanderbilt’s biggest problem is that everyone was so wrong about them. The Commodores went .500 in the SEC last season and wound up in the NIT, but because they won seven of their last nine games and returned an intriguing prospect in center Damian Jones, they wound up ranked No. 18 in the AP’s preseason poll. Now that they’ve fallen on hard times—their win over Auburn at home Tuesday night left them 1-3 in the SEC—they are having to answer questions about expectations, as opposed to just fixing their problems.

As I see it, the main problem is an overall lack of quickness and athleticism. This manifests itself on offense, where too often the Commodores have only one reliable playmaker in 6’3” sophomore Wade Baldwin IV, as well as on defense, where the team is ranked 305th nationally in steals percentage. That was problematic in the loss at Arkansas, when the Commodores committed 26 turnovers against the Razorbacks’ fullcourt pressure, as well as the loss at South Carolina, when they committed two fewer turnovers (11, to the Gamecocks’ 13) but got outscored on fastbreaks 13–2.

Injuries have also been an issue. Luke Kornet, a highly-skilled 7’1 center, just returned from a five-game absence because of a knee injury. And the team played Tuesday night without its best three-point shooter, sophomore guard Matthew Fisher-Davis. He is out with an injured foot, but X-rays were negative, so hopefully he will be back soon.

Is this team fixable? Sure. Kevin Stallings is a good coach, and he’ll make some adjustments. But what really needs to be fixed are our expectations. The Commodores are still a good team, but they’re not who we thought they were.