Kragthorpe: Utes keep coming up close against Pac-12's elite

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The Arizona Wildcats may lose their top-10 status sometime Monday, but they retained that distinction long enough to visit the Huntsman Center and provide another gauge of Utah's progress.

Having trailed by 13 points early in Sunday afternoon's second half, the Utes rallied to tie the game in the last eight minutes, only to absorb another one of those defeats (68-64) that's equally encouraging and discouraging.

Think about this: In a combined three games this season, No. 9 Arizona and UCLA — traditionally speaking, the Pac-12's flagship programs — have outscored Utah by a total of 11 points. And yet the Utes have lost to Stanford by 31, Oregon State by 18, USC by 17 and last-place Washington State by 10.

The latest case of coming close served only to elicit more questions about the Utes and where they stand in coach Larry Krystkowiak's second season. Beating the Wildcats would have been a huge breakthrough, but Utah could not quite deliver in the end.

So the wondering, the what-ifs and the unknowns of the future are ruling Utah's present.

How should another missed opportunity make Krystkowiak — or anybody else — feel about this team's growth?

What does it say about the Utes, twice taking a team with Arizona's talent level to the wire in losing efforts?

And is it an indictment that they could play so competitively against Oregon, Arizona and UCLA and beat middle-tier opponents Washington, Colorado and Arizona State, but lose convincingly to the league's worst teams?

"Wish I could help ya," Krystkowiak said congenially, on his way out of the postgame news conference.

Actually, he had responded thoughtfully to those questions — not that the answers are completely clear, even to him. The Utes have moved well beyond the embarrassing level of last season, when they trailed 52-18, 67-33, 51-20 and 34-2 at various checkpoints of games.

Yet in terms of genuinely measurable improvement, the Utes (3-10) need another victory in their remaining five Pac-12 games just to top the conference win total of last year's patchwork team. To USC's eternal shame, those Utes failed to finish last in the Pac-12 in 2011-12. At the moment, Utah merely is tied for 10th.

"What Larry has done with this team is remarkable," said Arizona coach Sean Miller. "I don't think any team in our conference enjoys the trip to Utah."

So there's that. Subjectively, the Utes have improved from unwatchable to watchable, from hopeless to hopeful, from being accommodating to becoming "a tough out," in Krystkowiak's words. It's just that in the standings, evidence is lacking.

The season's theme is well established, anyway. "When tough games are knocking at your door, you can either stand up to 'em or you can fade away from 'em," said senior center Jason Washburn.

The Utes have stood and fought against the Pac-12's elite. Sunday's comeback in front of a season-high crowd of 11,712 ultimately earned them more credibility — and another loss.

Soon enough, the standards will be higher and the judgment will become more critical of Krystkowiak, who launched this process with a five-year contract.

Late in Sunday's first half, Utah assistant coach Tommy Connor ran down the sideline to the corner, as if to fill the unoccupied spot in the Utes' zone defense. Clipboard in hand, Connor could do nothing to prevent Arizona's Grant Jerrett from drilling a 3-pointer.

That sequence pretty much captured life for Krystkowiak and his staff. They're trying to get everything covered, and they just keep coming up short.

That will change, eventually. How long will it take? Nobody can say, exactly.

Twitter: @tribkurt