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Honorable mention all-defense? Kyle Kuzma?

Say it ain't so, Larry Krystkowiak jested Wednesday afternoon.

"I have no idea how it happened," the coach said with a wide grin. "We didn't even nominate him on our own team. There must have been some kind of clerical error."

While tongue-in-cheek, Krystkowiak's barbs are nothing new for Kuzma, the junior forward who was also first-team all-Pac 12 and Utah's only all-conference honoree this season. Kuzma relished his defensive honor above all, a sign of how far he's come since he first joined the program. After the coaching staff slung their arrows, he came back better and tougher.

Krystkowiak calls March "survival of the fittest," and to an extent, that's what Utah has become as well. Kuzma, one of several touted prep recruits Utah signed in 2014, is the last man standing in his class — in that way, he's the ideal man to lead the Utes through March.

This was a kid who grew up in Flint, Mich., which has become a national cautionary tale of institutional dysfunction. This was a kid who had to make up ground to become eligible, and when he arrived at Utah couldn't do a push-up.

Look at him now.

"That's why I give him all the credit in the world," assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum said. "It's close to a tear down my eye. All the things that I told him to do, and he just did it."

Kuzma came in thinking college basketball would be easy. He grew up idolizing Flint-to-NBA products, and as a prospect at Rise Academy, he started chewing on his own hype.

That quickly changed when he realized Utah's other freshmen were far more polished: Brekkott Chapman and Isaiah Wright knew defensive technique and schemes he didn't know. Every practice, he was made to feel like the runt of the class. Krystkowiak didn't let him forget it.

Kuzma often found himself in Slocum's office, asking why — why was he getting called out for every mistake and every error? But the coach who recruited him didn't give him an inch.

"That's the way it's gotta be," Slocum said. "Kyle would come in and sit in my office and dang near be in tears, but I would take the staff's side. But it's not always about that message that they hear in the office, it's when they walk out of that office, are they hearing the same message?"

As Kuzma mulled a transfer, those in his circle told him to be patient, to listen to Krystkowiak and learn from a former NBA player.

Clint Parks, who has known and trained with Kuzma for the past few years, said the difference between Kuzma and others is Kuzma's love for the game. When he's not practicing or putting up shots, he can often be found watching NBA games, studying players and tendencies. At Utah, he's known to ask for video of other forwards, picking up things in their respective skill sets that he can incorporate into his own.

That's why Parks wasn't surprised to see Kuzma playing through a twice-sprained ankle this season, one that has been swollen for months, or when he heard about Kuzma vomiting twice on the day of the Washington game, then had 22 points and 15 rebounds as the Utes won without an injured David Collette.

"That just goes to show you how much he loves to hoop," Parks said. "Those are the kind of players who are a coaches' dream. He loves the process. He's like an old-school dude where he loves to go out to compete."

So that's what Kuzma did: compete. By his sophomore year, he had passed Chapman and Chris Reyes on the depth chart. By his junior year, both were gone.

There's no hard feelings there, Kuzma said. He talks with Chapman and Wright at least once a week. But sticking with Utah has also changed him, and he's grateful for those lessons.

It continues to this day, though Krystkowiak isn't the only one delivering the criticism. Vin Sparacio, one of Kuzma's high school mentors who remains in his inner circle, ripped him after the loss at Stanford last month, telling him he needed to be a better leader.

"That was one of the best things I get from the people in my life: They don't allow me to have handouts," Kuzma said. "I take everything head on. When I make a mistake, they'll call me out. It's a great thing to have."

Even as they give him a hard time, those people who are close to him also marvel at how far he's come. Sparacio called Kuzma's impending college degree which he'll complete in May "way more impressive" than his 15 double-doubles this season.

Context: When Utah first recruiting Kuzma, he was at Rise Academy, an unaccredited prep school in Philadelphia, and had dismal grades. To get eligible, he had to go to Denver to take an exam to earn his GED, then wasn't able to participate in games or practices for a year while taking college classes. The closest he got to primetime college hoops was playing other students in intramurals.

"He's lightyears ahead of where he was academically," Sparacio said. "His academic situation was a complete mess. He didn't have great habits. It's hard for me to process that he's going to earn his degree. He's so much more mature."

With time and maturity come weighty decisions, and it's likely Kuzma will have to make a big one this spring. As a 6-foot-9 forward who was among the conference's best, he's improved every season. For his dream leap to the NBA, things are uncertain: Draft Express ranks him as the No. 74 prospect, and others have him in second-round territory.

Kuzma said after the season, he'll meet with Krystkowiak and Utah's coaches, as well as Sparacio and his mother, Karri Kuzma. Krystkowiak said he's already sent for feedback on Kuzma's draft potential from the NBA.

While the promise of the NBA seems a potential distraction, Parks said Kuzma's approach to the game remains pure.

"You want to be known as a winner," he said. "He doesn't want to be the guy that played on the team that didn't make the tournament. Guys who want to win rebound, and play defense and dive for the ball. He does those things."

Making that run will require a toughness — the quality Kuzma believes his rocky start at Utah has helped him acquire.

When Utah's many newcomers confide in him that they've been rubbed the wrong way by a coach's criticism in practice, Kuzma isn't about to give them the shoulder to cry on that he never had.

"Everybody that's new has come in and said, 'Man, the coaches are on me,'" he said. "I tell them, 'Man, y'all have no idea what I went through. If you think this is tough, y'all at the wrong place.'"

Twitter: @kylegoon —

California vs. Utah

P Pac-12 quarterfinals at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

Tipoff • 3:30 p.m. MST

TV • Pac-12 Networks​

​Radio • ESPN 700 AM

Records • Cal (20-11); Utah (20-10)

Series history • ​Tied at 14

Last meeting • March 2, 2017 at Utah; Utah 74, Cal 44

About the Golden Bears • Cal is coming off a 67-62 win over Oregon State on Wednesday afternoon in the opening round of the tournament. ... Including last year's overtime win over the Golden Bears in the semifinals, Utah has knocked out Cal twice in the past four seasons in the conference tournament. ... Sophomore Ivan Rabb had his 29th career double-double against the Beavers, which is tied for second most in Cal history, and he's one from tying record-holder Sean Lampley.

About the Utes • The Utes have won at least one game in the league tournament for each of the past four seasons. ... Devon Daniels and David Collette both practiced on Wednesday; Daniels has served a three-game suspension, while Collette was injured in Saturday's game against Stanford. ... With Kyle Kuzma's selection to the all-Pac-12 first team, Utah has had four straight seasons with at least one first-team honoree (Delon Wright in 2014 and 2015, Jakob Poeltl in 2016).