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Sweet 16 trip validates Utah's rebuilding effort under Krystkowiak

PORTLAND, Ore.—Dallin Bachynski had his doubts. And if Larry Krystkowiak is being honest, he did too.

“If you had told me during my recruitment that we’d be going to a Sweet 16, I would have been like, ‘Ha!’” said Bachynski, a 7-foot senior center from Canada shortly after Utah had locked up a spot in the South Regional. “I’d have been like, ‘Uh, guys, you’ve won six games, I don’t know about that.’”

“I probably would have [said] the same thing,” said Krystkowiak, now in his fourth season in Salt Lake City. “From the very first day I was involved there, the questions were, How many games is going to be the goal? What's going to make it a successful year?”

The answer, it appears, is 26. Four years after that first disastrous season and a decade after their last trip to the tournament’s third round, the Utes have won 26 games. Their last victory came Saturday night over Georgetown at the Moda Center in front of 17,370 and courtesy of Bachynski (nine points and eight rebounds off the bench) plus four teammates who scored in double figures.

“It's surreal,” said Brandon Taylor, who went 4 for 8 from deep to lead the Utes with 14 points and five assists. Taylor & Co. danced and sang at center court after the 75-64 victory, then moved into their locker room for a subdued celebration that mostly involved stuffing their faces with postgame wings. In their rush off the floor, a staffer tossed them red “Sweet 16” shirts in celebration of an accomplishment that seemed so far away just a few seasons ago.

It’s a return to relevance for the former basketball powerhouse best known as the home of legendary coach (and personality) Rick Majerus, and it comes on the heels of a Pac-12 power play. Forever tagged as one of the weaker Power 5 conferences when it came to hoops, and labeled this season in particular of having a down year, the Pac-12 on Saturday sent three teams in the Sweet 16 (Utah, Arizona and almost-left-out UCLA) with an opportunity for a fourth. Eighth-seeded Oregon takes on top-seeded Wisconsin in Omaha Sunday afternoon, putting the Pac-12’s perfect postseason record (7-0 in the NCAA tourney, 10-0 counting NIT and CBI bids) on the line.

As for all that chatter about the big, bad Big 12, well ... Iowa State and Baylor could not be reached for comment. Krystkowiak, however, had some thoughts.

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“What else is new?” Krystkowiak said of the criticism, which he heard even when coaching at Montana. “There were years when the Pac-12, you know, was ‘down and out,’ then all of a sudden you look up and there's three teams in the Elite 8, four teams in the Sweet 16 … We know within, it's a pretty darn good brand of basketball.”

The conference of champions, Krystkowiak said, is often judged by the two teams with lots of titles. People base their perception of the Pac-12 on the success and failure of Arizona and UCLA, perhaps unfairly. In other conferences, teams can beat each other up, roll into the postseason with four or five league losses and be branded “battle-tested.” Teams from the Pac-12 who do the same get tabbed as weak or lacking star power. Some of it is unavoidable: Much of the country is fast asleep when All-American candidate Delon Wright (12 points, five rebounds and five assists against Georgetown) and his team takes the floor, so they fly under the radar. 

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“It's good to see that everyone's doing well,” Wright said. “I don't think people across the country respect the PAC-12 like they should.”

Slowly, that might be changing. Certainly they know of each other’s accomplishments and potential. On Saturday in Portland, Arizona first took care of a pesky Ohio State team, using a superb performance from point guard T.J. McConnell (19 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals) to propel the ‘Cats to a 73-58 win and their third consecutive Sweet 16.

In the hallway between games, Arizona and Utah players exchanged fist bumps and a few “Good luck” and “Good game.” Earlier in the day, Krystkowiak and UA coach Sean Miller traded text messages. Miller assured him Arizona fans would stick around to back the Pac, as the popular social media phrase says. In pregame, Krystkowiak told his team there would be lots of red in the building, for Arizona and Utah, and that it likely wouldn’t feel like a road game. (Attempting 32 free throws to Georgetown’s nine also may imply it was a friendly atmosphere.)

As the clock wound down, praise for Krystkowiak flooded social media and TV airwaves, with outsiders lauding his quick rebuilding project. But for those involved, Krystkowiak said, it hasn’t felt fast. He estimates 1,300-1,500 long days have passed since he took charge, each of them emphasizing the Utes’s philosophy of “taking care of whatever’s on your list today.” He didn’t paint visions of deep NCAA tournament runs, just like he didn’t think about his post-college plan.

“I never dreamed of playing in the NBA,” he said. “I never talked about it or thought about it until I was there.” He believes living in the moment is crucial to success. And in this moment Utah and the Pac-12, are pretty good.