Utah returns to NCAA Tournament for 1st time in 5 years

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Larry Krystkowiak said he didn't lay out a timeline for success when he took over the Utah program before the 2011-12 season. He was more concerned that the Utes would be shut out in Pac-12 play.

A game plan was constructed for the program to gradually improve without any dates attached. Utah won six games that first season, including three in conference. Three years later, the team is ranked No. 17 in the nation after winning 24 games and returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

''It's a grind,'' Krystkowiak said. ''You hope if you do it consistently, and there's going to be days that you have setbacks ... you start looking at the graph and you'd like to think, over time, it's going up.

''This is where we should be, probably, about now. But I didn't have any expectations or anything. It was very much in the moment and it remains to be in the moment.''

The Utes are the No. 5 seed in the South and will face No. 12 Stephen F. Austin on Thursday. There isn't a single player on the roster that has played in the tournament.

Those players find themselves at a crossroads of sorts. Bringing the program back to the tournament, where it was a regular throughout the 1990s and early 2000s is an accomplishment in itself.

That's one of the reasons All-Pac-12 guard Delon Wright returned for his senior year. The season is already a success after posting the first winning record in conference since joining the Pac-12 and winning the most games since 2008-09.

This cornerstone laid for the future of the program, however, would look a lot stronger with a win or two.

''It kind of works hand-in-hand,'' guard Brandon Taylor said. ''You want to approach every game with the mentality that we're just going to go out there and play harder than our opponent. That right there is going to lead to showing the world that Utah basketball is back.''

Krystkowiak said he doesn't plan to speak to his team much about the enormity of the event - saying they'll quickly discover that on their own. He's focused on practices, the scouting report and the game plan.

The program is standing on a different platform than the one it started the season on, regardless of the tournament outcome. The team was ranked for the first time since the 2008-09 and was ranked as high as No. 8 for the first time since 1998-99. The Utes are one victory away from their most wins since 2004-05.

Krystkowiak's recruiting, which largely dictates the future of the program, will certainly have a different tone.

''There was maybe a little more of a leap of faith before,'' Krystkowiak said, ''but now we're playing better so they see that.

''Part of a college experience for a recruit would be to want to be in the NCAA Tournament. We're able to talk about something that we've actually done.''