San Francisco • The rest of the Pac-12 saw Utah's difficult start in conference play last season. Conference observers watched as the dog days of late January and early February gave way to some embarrassing results. Then they took note of the resolve shown by Larry Krystkowiak's team. They paid attention as nationally ranked Oregon walked into the Huntsman Center needing a win to claim the regular-season crown and walked out with a defeat. And they watched even more intently as USC and California were then dispatched by Utah at the Pac-12 Tournament catapulting the Utes all the way to the semifinals before falling in a rematch against the Ducks.
Seven months later, those observations have turned into respect.
On Thursday, media picked Utah to finish ninth in the Pac-12 men's basketball poll. It marks the highest preseason ranking for the Utes in the conference since they made the jump from the Mountain West three years ago. In fact, it's the first time the Utes haven't been picked to finish last.
"They are one of the most well-coached teams in the league," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "Larry went in and he's turning things around. Mainly, he's gotten everyone to buy into what he's selling and he's gotten rid of the kids who don't. Now he has a talented roster and a bunch of kids that play hard. That's a good team."
It was a different feel for Krystkowiak and his sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge, Utah's player representative at media day. For once, the questions didn't center around how the Utes planned on staying out of last place. When Krystkowiak took the podium, he was introduced by the moderator as the campus crime fighter a playful reference to the coach recently nabbing a thief who had been stealing from the basketball office.
There were jokes. There were smiles. Even with Utah being picked ninth still the bottom third of the league there was a feeling of acceptance that wasn't really there for the Utes in the their first two Pac-12 seasons.
And while Krystkowiak went out of his way to say he didn't care about his preseason placement, there's little doubt that even a dash of respect was welcomed.
"It feels good that we're not being picked to finish dead-last in the conference. It shows people are starting to pay attention," Loveridge said. "We have athleticism at every position this year, so hopefully that helps us. We try not to worry about where we're picked because we have to play well regardless. We're excited to see how it all comes together."
Arizona, a team many think has a shot at making a Final Four run this season, was picked to win the league. UCLA, Colorado and Oregon round out the top four. Oregon State, USC and Washington State are picked to finish below the Utes.
Utah lost three starters from last year, but boasts a deep and talented recruiting class led by Delon Wright and Princeton Onwas. The Utes also return four sophomores who played extensively as freshmen. Two Loveridge and Brandon Taylor are projected starters, with Loveridge having the potential to develop into an all-conference candidate. A third, Dakarai Tucker, is fighting for the small forward job with Onwas. Jeremy Olsen also will play a role in Utah's frontcourt rotation.
"Year one was survival," Krystkowiak said. "Year two, we were learning how to win. Hopefully this year we have a roster that's ready to win a lot of ballgames. The guys have been working hard. I'm pleased with how it's coming together.
Will it all add up to ninth place, or even better? That will be played out over the next five months. But at least on media day, it was clear that those outside of the Utah program are recognizing that significant forward steps have been taken.
Pac-12 basketball poll
1. Arizona (21*) 273
2. UCLA (1) 212
3. Colorado (1) 211
4. Oregon 196
5. California 194
6. Stanford 166
7. Arizona State 159
8. Washington 121
9. Utah 68
10. Oregon State 67
11. USC 63
12. Washington State 39
Utah basketball key dates
All events start at 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 • Night with the Runnin' Utes
Nov. 1 • St. Martin's, preseason game
Nov. 8 • Evergreen State, season opener