Bleeding Red: Ducks turned Utah win into a (bad) fairy tale

The 10th ranked Ducks came to town looking to put on quite a show
But Utah soon proved to Oregon it had a tough row to hoe
I naively thought that perhaps it was the Runnin’ Utes time
Only to discover I was living a nursery rhyme

COMMENTARY — Well, Utah split the proverbial baby by losing in overtime to 10th-ranked Oregon, but beating Oregon State. The Pac-12 season could have started off worse, and it could have started off better. I guess there’s no sense crying over spilled milk at this point.

Utah hosted Oregon at home last Thursday. As the final buzzer sounded, I realized that I had just lived through a real-life nursery rhyme by Mother Goose. You know Mother Goose — lots of classical nursery rhymes that we have all heard since we were children. As the nursery rhyme starts out, you think it is a cute little story, but as it concludes you realize the true tragedy of what just transpired.

For example, let’s take a look at the classic “Rock-a-Bye Baby.”

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Seriously? Babies have actually been lulled to sleep with the sing-song possibility that they might suddenly crash to the ground from a great height? How comforting.

And don’t even get me started on “Ring Around the Rosie” and the alleged references therein to the Great Plague.

But that is pretty much the story of the match-up between Utah and Oregon last week. It started out as a true fairy tale, with the Runnin’ Utes leading the Ducks for most of the game, including a double-digit lead nearly halfway through the second half. But what started out as a hopeful tale ended in tragedy as Oregon stole the ball and went the length of the court for a winning slam dunk with a single second left on the clock. As I watched in horror, I felt like a baby that had suddenly crashed to the ground after rocking gently in the high treetop for most of the game.

On a short turnaround two days later, Utah beat Oregon State by 11 in the Huntsman Center on Saturday afternoon.

In other words, the Runnin’ Utes are at least beating the teams they are supposed to beat, with the loss to the Ducks coming as no great surprise to anyone who is paying even the slightest attention to college basketball.

Call me overly demanding, but the loss to Oregon still sticks in my craw. The game was there for the winning by Utah, but they let it slip through their fingers. Utah was very good on defense against Oregon, but played poorly on offense. The reverse was true for the Runnin’ Utes Saturday against Oregon State. The takeaway lesson is not lost on Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak.

“We can’t have a deficiency in one area or we’re going to be vulnerable,” he said Monday at his weekly press conference. “That’s the teaching point for our guys. We can’t have (that) deficiency in one area and expect to win games.”

Prior to last week’s games, Krystkowiak candidly admitted that the Runnin’ Utes hadn’t faced a lot of adversity in non-conference play and that there would inevitably be a number of moments of truth in Pac-12 play. Well they wasted no time in facing adversity in their first Pac-12 game, and when faced with a true moment of truth they came up lame in the waning seconds against the Ducks.

Would the outcome have been the same if Utah had played a slightly more rigorous non-conference schedule? Maybe, and maybe not. The cold reality is that this team is still a work in progress, and is bound to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. Would it have been better to have played and lost to a tougher opponent in non-conference play in order to give the Runnin’ Utes a better shot at coming out on top against the Ducks? As a lawyer, I could take either side of such an argument and belabor it until the cows come home, but I am going to spare all of you the misfortune of having to suffer through such theoretical wordplay.

When all has been said and done, there can be no doubt that Krystkowiak has this team, and the entire program, headed in the right direction. Having gone from 6 wins in his inaugural season, to 15 wins last year, and already 12 wins in 14 games this year, Coach K has the Runnin’ Utes on an upward swing that would make the stock market turn green with envy.

And he’s doing it with hustle defense as Utah’s top priority. With Krystkowiak at the helm, defense will always be the focal point.

“We’re a pretty darn good team when we’re getting stops,” he said. “It’s all predicated on our defense. If we’re getting stops and really playing intently, then we’re going to make our offense easier.”

As with life, Utah must learn from its past experiences (and mistakes) on the hardwood and move on. The Runnin’ Utes will have an opportunity to do just that as they go on the road for their first multi-game road trip of the season this week against Washington and Washington State. Both games are very winnable, and will go a long way toward showing what kind of team Utah really is.

I guess I am just a cock-eyed optimist, but I’m betting that Utah will win its next two games, which would give the Runnin’ Utes their first winning record in Pac-12 play since joining the conference.

~

Dwayne Vance is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

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