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Houston • It was November in San Diego when Larry Krystkowiak said it, but he could've said it after any loss this season.

"Our defense is ahead of our offense at this point," he said after the team's first loss to San Diego State.

Fast-forward: The Utes finished second in the Pac-12, reached the Sweet 16 and went a long way to rebuilding their reputation as a basketball program to be respected and feared.

And still, Utah is left to wonder: What if a few more shots had fallen? What if they hadn't thrown a few passes away?

The venue at NRG Stadium wasn't conducive to shooting, and all four teams that played Friday had a rough night behind the arc there. Duke's speed and length also factored in. But in the end, the Utes weren't about to shove aside blame for the misses around the rim, from 3-point range and everywhere in between.

"A lot of shots were in and out," Jordan Loveridge said. "It could have went either way."

Against Utah's toughest draws this year, it typically went one way.

The six worst shooting performances of the year — including against Duke — were all losses. They some of Utah's most athletic foes: Arizona twice, Kansas, Oregon and SDSU. With length and athleticism, a team could go a long way toward stopping Utah's attack.

On the one hand, Utah finished the year as one of the nation's most efficient offenses (ranked No. 21 in adjusted efficiency on stat website KenPom), and between shooting 52 percent inside the arc and 40 percent outside of it, many teams simply couldn't keep up. There was a reason Utah had 15 victories by 20 or more points while going 26-9 this year.

But defeats played out almost on script: turnovers, missing shots around the rim and struggling to create opportunities as the shot clock wasted away.

On Friday night, the contrast between the two versions of the Utes made them ache. They knew they could do better.

"I just feel like a lot of my shots I make on the regular, they didn't go," Delon Wright said. "Can't do anything about it now."

As the Wright era ends, another chapter begins for the Utes. But do they have the right stuff?

With experience and some raw talent — and two departing seniors — there's plenty of optimism for seasons to come. But while the Utes have prided themselves on building success without nationally heralded recruiting classes, Duke showed the merits of such signees. There's little substitution for the way Justise Winslow scored both inside and out, or the way Tyus Jones was able to speed past the Utes coast to coast.

It could be said of many of Utah's losses this year: Superior athletes won.

But Krystkowiak has made attitude — not necessarily natural ability — a big focal point of his program. And even if they didn't win, the Utes showed what they were made of at the very finish.

"It's really hard to beat somebody that never gives up," he said. "That's not just a basketball deal, that's in life and in general, and that's one of the things we try to get across to our players."

But it's not as hard to beat a team that can't finish its shots. And it will be a thought for the Utes to chew on this offseason as they contemplate what lies ahead.

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Common denominator

In Utah's nine losses this season, it typically had some serious struggle on offense, be it shooting, 3-pointers or turnovers:

Date Score FG% 3% TOs

Nov. 18 SDSU 53, Utah 49 32.0 24.0 18

Dec. 13 Kansas 63, Utah 60 38.9 21.1 13

Jan. 17 Arizona 69, Utah 51 39.0 47.4 13

Jan. 29 UCLA 69, Utah 59 48.9 31.8 14

Feb. 22 Oregon 69, Utah 58 36.5 27.6 14

Feb. 28 Arizona 63, Utah 57 30.9 31.8 9

March 7 Washington 77, Utah 68 52.0 26.3 14

March 13 Oregon 67, Utah 64 44.0 38.1 12

March 27 Duke 63, Utah 57 35.0 25.0 15