This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Trying to rise above the Pac-12's crowded competition, the Utah Utes need everything sophomore center Jakob Poeltl can give them before he goes to the NBA.

Poeltl was outstanding in key moments of Wednesday night's game against California. And some timely help from his teammates enabled the Utes to move up in the standings with a 73-64 victory at the Huntsman Center.

Going into Wednesday's play, the Utes and Bears were among six teams tied for third place in the Pac-12. If Utah is going to finish in the top tier of the conference, Poeltl will have to distinguish himself the way he did early in the second half of his 21-point, nine-rebound performance.

Poeltl scored 11 points in the first half as the Utes took a 35-34 lead. That margin was disappointing, considering they led by 13 midway through the period. But after falling behind by five points early in the second half, the Utes responded with a 19-2 run and stayed ahead. Poeltl played a big part in that surge with seven points, plus a nice assist to Kyle Kuzma, who finished with 15 points, as did Brandon Taylor.

The Utes moved to 16-5 overall, 5-3 in the Pac-12. Cal [14-7, 4-4] dropped down on a night when Colorado's defeat of Stanford also create some separation among some of those six teams. Stanford visits the Utes on Saturday.

The combination of Utah's playing very well for long stretches and Cal's sheer talent created kind of a crazy game Wednesday. The Utes led by 13 points, trailed by five, led by 14 and then allowed the Bears to cut the lead to 61-57 before steadying themselves again.

Utah's fourth straight win was impressive, after Cal had taken a 71-58 victory in Berkeley in early January. Jaylen Brown's 27 points kept the Bears in this game, but the Utes had just enough balance and good defense to overcome his effort.

Ultimately, this was just another tough Pac-12 game, with more of them to come. For the Utes, this season is all about maximizing Poeltl — and, by definition, the rest of the team.

Nobody could say that Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff failed to make the most of their opportunity to coach an NBA first-round pick last season, as they built a team around point guard Delon Wright and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

The same kind of challenge is in play for Krystkowiak this year — to an even greater degree, with Poeltl as a likely top-10 pick. The Utes keep increasing their level of recruiting, but who knows? Poeltl could be a once in a lifetime player for this staff, and there's a responsibility that comes with coaching such talent.

Krystkowiak's job description is to develop players and get the most out of the team that surrounds a big-time NBA prospect. The expectations obviously are much higher around here when the Utes have players such as Wright [a junior college transfer] and Poeltl, for two years each, creating a window for NCAA Tournament advancement.

So the staff's task is to raise everybody's game — not just Poeltl's. "I really don't think there's any more pressure than [coaching] any of the other guys," Krystkowiak said this week. "It's kind of the same thought, the same blueprint when you recruit all of these guys."

He promises players he'll "squeeze as much out of 'em as we can and we'll address their weaknesses and have some big-boy conversations with them and not always tell them everything that they want to hear," Krystkowiak said.

Poeltl was coming off a 29-point, 10-rebound effort in Sunday's overtime win at Washington. In contrast, Poeltl took only four shots and scored seven points in a home loss to Oregon two weeks ago, when the Utes needed him to be much more assertive offensively.

Overall, the encouraging development for Poeltl and the program is that he has improved as a sophomore — basically following the trajectory of Andrew Bogut, who became the NBA's No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Going into Wednesday's game, Poeltl had gone from averaging 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds as a freshman to 16.9 points and 9.0 boards this season. Bogut improved from 12.5 points and 9.9 rebounds as a freshman to 20.4 points and 12.2 rebounds in his second year.

Poeltl's improvement is a function of two primary factors. He's staying on the court longer by avoiding foul trouble and his free-throw shooting has gone from 44.4 percent to 69.5 percent. The only downside to his game Wednesday was his 7-of-14 effort from the line, as he missed his last four attempts. But he has a come a long way since last season, with free throws among "the five or six things" that the coaches wanted him to address.

The uncertainties of college basketball struck Krystkowiak recently, as he evaluated some recruits. "You don't know where they're going to end up" in their development, he said.

Poeltl is still on the rise. And the Utes can only hope he'll take them a long way, before he's gone.

Twitter: @tribkurt