COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri fans might have thought their eight-win basketball program reached rock bottom last season, but they hadn’t skimmed the depths that Utah reached six years ago. In Larry Krystkowiak’s first season coaching the Runnin’ Utes, the once-proud program that became an NCAA Tournament regular under Rick Majerus won just six games in 2011-12, endured two eight-game losing streaks, and lost 10 games by 20 points or more.
Three years later, a span that seemed anything but short to Krystkowiak, the Utes reached the NCAA regional semifinals and were back among the relevant in college basketball. Utah (2-0), picked seventh in the Pac-12 preseason poll, faces its first major test Thursday when Missouri (2-0) visits the Huntsman Center for a clash of high-major opponents whose head coaches have some history.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me for scheduling that game,” said Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin, who was 3-4 against Utah the previous three seasons while coaching at Cal-Berkeley. “They’re a talented team. Big, physical guys. Their guards can make shots. They’ll push it, especially at home. They’ll get out and run and space you out. Their bigs are mobile. They can make shots. It’ll be a big game.”
Under Krystkowiak, a former NBA journeyman who played nine seasons with six franchises, the Utes have grown from Pac-12 doormat to regular contender, winning 20 games each of the last four years while producing a first-round selection in the last three NBA drafts: Delon Wright in 2015, Jakob Poltl in 2016 and Kyle Kuzma this year.
“It wasn’t an overnight deal,” Krystkowiak said this week in a phone interview from Salt Lake City. “It was six wins, then 15, then 21, then 26 and 27 and we won 20 last year. It’s always nice when you’re able to coach guys that are playing at the next level. Between Delon, Jakob and Kyle, having those guys combined for a couple years leads to an awful lot of wins. … When somebody says, ‘How did you turn it around so fast?’ It was like 1,500 days. You know, timing is everything, too. We stepped into a situation that imploded, so there weren’t high expectations. We had a little bit of time to chop some wood and slowly make some progress. It’s worked out.”
During the offseason, Utah had an unexpected opening on its schedule when Xavier bought out its game in Salt Lake City, the second of a two-game series. Hoping to find another high-major conference opponent, the Utes agreed to a two-year series with the Tigers. Utah plays at Mizzou Arena next season.
As Krystkowiak prepared his team for Thursday’s tip-off (7 p.m. St. Louis time on Pac-12 Network), he wondered, just like Mizzou fans, if prized freshman Michael Porter Jr. would suit up for the Tigers. The preseason All-American played only two minutes of Friday’s opener against Iowa State and sat out all of Monday’s win over Wagner while resting a leg injury. Mizzou declined to confirm if Porter was on the team flight to Salt Lake City on Wednesday. A team spokesman planned to address the freshman’s status with reporters early Thursday.
“Well, look, there’s really no way to prepare for him to be there because he hasn’t played yet, so we don’t know what he’ll do,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s plenty of firepower. That’s a great team with some returners and transfers and some maturity. It’s not like they’re only going to be as effective as Michael Porter Jr. is. He’ll give them a great boost if he’s playing. But it’s more about game plan and overall philosophy without having a big sample size for personnel in terms of what exactly he’s trying to do. It’s a little bit of a secret.”
Last season, Martin’s Cal team won two of three meetings against Utah, avenging a 30-point loss at the Huntsman Center with a three-point win seven days later in the Pac-12 tournament. Porter or no Porter, Krystkowiak knows what to expect from a team with Martin on the bench.
“Most people know they hang their hat on playing hard and defending and not making things easy,” Krystkowiak said. “He’s coached some great players that are playing at the next level and it appears there are guys on this roster that have that same potential. It’s a little smash-mouth, not a lot of trickery. But guys just really buy into playing aggressively. It’s a defensive-minded team. That’s always first. They have enough guys that can make plays that can put points on the board.”