No. 11 Utah begins final stretch of road to Pac-12 title
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The first three years of life in the Pac-12 were brutal for Utah.
The Utes took a beating with a 17-37 conference record and failed to finish higher than eighth in the league.
The program turned a major corner in year No. 4 under coach Larry Krystkowiak with the team ranked No. 11 in the country and eight games from securing its first regular-season conference title of any kind since 1999.
''With our loss to UCLA, I didn't know if we would have a chance of getting back at first place,'' guard Delon Wright said. ''Now that we have a chance to have a Pac-12 title, it's real exciting. We want to take every game like it's a championship game because it is.''
The Utes (18-4, 8-2) are tied with No. 7 Arizona (20-3, 8-2) atop the conference and host Stanford (16-7, 7-4) on Thursday. The Cardinal are in a three-way tie with Oregon and Oregon State for third in the league.
If Utah wins the Pac-12, it will be well earned after going through the gauntlet of Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona in the home finale. That's the current top four teams, excluding the Utes, in the conference in the next 17 days.
''It's a good feeling when you know you can control your destiny for the rest of the season,'' forward Jordan Loveridge said. ''We're ready for the challenge and we wouldn't want it any other way. We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. Playing those teams will help us do that.''
The Wildcats have an easier sprint to the Pac-12 finish line with Utah and Stanford being the only two of the top five still on the schedule.
Krystkowiak said he's not playing out what-if scenarios with so much still up in the air. His own family has asked who they should cheer for when watching conference games, but the fourth-year coach advised them to simply focus on Utah.
''I'm not a big believer in an upset and a favorite,'' Krystkowiak said. ''That kind of mentality is really dangerous. It's about the next play and staying in the moment. ... It's not about reaching any kind of destination. ... It's just this daily journey. It's a grind. ... Our whole focus right now is about Thursday night, nothing more, past or future beyond that.
''For the most part our philosophy is to take care of our own little yard.''
The Utes are already eyeing a high seed in the NCAA tournament, which would be their first berth since the 2008-09 season. The team won six games just three seasons ago, but is now on the verge of consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time since 2003-05.
''(Winning the conference) would mean a lot to us,'' forward Dakarai Tucker said. ''Seeing where we came from, means we've really been working hard. It's not going to go down any further. The program's going to keep growing.
''The more we can produce, the more people want to come here. This program will just keep growing and growing as time goes on. So, it would mean a lot to us.''