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A 1-3 start to Pac-12 play left Runnin' Utes fans whispering among themselves how spoiled they were during last season's Sweet 16 run.
A five-game winning streak since then has turned up the intrigue for this season, as Utah (17-5, 6-3) is among the Pac-12 contenders at the halfway point of league play and seems poised for something special once again.
The one-game-at-a-time cliché was set aside for just one minute for Utah as senior guard Brandon Taylor looked back at what Utah has done so far. For him, it's not enough it has to be building toward something more.
"It is a good feeling, but we know we still have a lot to improve," he said. "We don't want to settle on this little five-game streak. We want to continue on with postseason play and so on."
At the moment, the postseason is firmly in the cards for Utah. The Utes are 6-4 against teams in the RPI top 50, and 11-5 against the RPI top 100. According to BracketMatrix.com, which tabulates bracket predictions, Utah's average seed in most projections is roughly a six seed.
The Utes have arguably their two toughest road trips ahead, with a pair of games in Oregon this week followed by a Los Angeles trip later in the month. Utah also still has a number of tough home games, including a Feb. 27 date with Arizona.
But Utah has also done a lot of work early, winning its last three road games and dropping only one game at home, coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
"My goal has always been to be playing your best basketball at the right time of year," he said. "And whether you talk about trends or whatever it might be, I think we've improved as the season has gone on, and I think it's important to keep that kind of focus and challenge ourselves to continue to do the same thing."
The most obvious factor in Utah's streak has been offense: The Utes are getting more of it.
On Saturday afternoon, five Utes scored 14 points or more to set a new high (96) for points scored in a Pac-12 game breaking a record Utah set earlier in the year. After stumbling out to just over 60 points per game in their first four, the Utes are now averaging 71.2 points per conference game with four players averaging 10 points or more.
The offense is a reflection of some better chemistry: Kyle Kuzma and Jakob Poeltl are becoming a more consistent scoring tandem down low, while Lorenzo Bonam is carving out a role as a slashing scorer and distributor (3.7 apg, 2.1:1 assists-to-turnovers ratio in Pac-12 games). Taylor has shaken a cold patch, scoring 15 or more points in three of his last four games and helping spark Utah's up-and-down 3-point shooting.
But Krystkowiak is quick to point to Utah's defensive improvement as well: In conference play, the Utes have held opponents to a league-best 67.7 points per game and a second-best 42.2 percent shooting mark. According to stat site KenPom.com, Utah's adjusted defensive efficiency in conference play (100.4 points per 100 possessions) leads the Pac-12.
For a team that started off the year scoring a lot of points, defense has been a season-long point of emphasis from the coaches. Krystkowiak said Saturday after the Utes held Stanford to 31-percent shooting in the second half that it's starting to sink in for the players.
"Coaches talk about it all the time: If you're committed to playing defense and guarding, then good things will happen," he said. "Our guys are getting the sense that the coaches aren't crazy. If you actually, get down, get your matchup, get the game plan and focus on that, then the game's a lot more fun. Certainly when you win, it's good medicine."
Utah's challenge headed into tough road games against Oregon State and Oregon, Krystkowiak said, is keeping humble in the face of success. But nine games in, the Utes have given something for fans to be buzzing about.
Utah's résumé at the halfway mark
Through nine conference games, the Runnin' Utes have established a solid foundation for a second straight NCAA tournament bid:
• No. 15 in RPI; No. 42 in KenPom rankings
• 6-4 against RPI top 50; 11-5 against RPI top 100
• 3-3 in road games, 3-1 in neutral site games; and 11-1 in home games
• Bracket Matrix average seeding of 5.91, above USC, Arizona, Colorado and Cal