LAS VEGAS - Larry Krystkowiak is a big ol’ guy, maybe 6 feet 9 inches, no fat, still looking like he could back up Blake Griffin for a few shifts at power forward.
But when Pac-12 officials informed Coach K the 10-minute cooling off period had expired Thursday afternoon, Krystkowiak emerged from Utah’s locker room looking like he had been leg-whipped, clotheslined and elbowed in the thorax for 40 minutes.
“They defend, they really defend,’’ he said as he walked down a corridor of the MGM Grand. “That’s why they lead the league in MVPs and Coaches of the Year and all that kind of stuff. They really punched us in the mouth.’’
What happened to that “bad matchup,’’ that nail-biter so many feared?
Where were the doubts that allegedly followed Arizona home from a Senior Day wreck at Oregon?
As it turned out, the Wildcats couldn’t wait to play the Utes. They were fresh and a bit chafed, taking it personally when it was suggested that (1) the Utes were a bad draw and (2) they weren’t all that much, anyway.
“Our record is 29-3,’’ Sean Miller said after the Wildcats took the Utes apart 71-39 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. The coach paused briefly as if it let it sink in: 29-3 speaks for itself.
The line of the day came from good old Kevin O’Neill, a Pac-12 Networks analyst who said “The Arizona players, their team as a whole played like they had rabies today. They got a shot of rabies. They were ferocious at both ends.”
You ask: Why can’t Arizona play that way every game?
Why did Arizona struggle mightily to beat the Utes 65-56 in Tucson and 67-63 in Salt Lake City?
Is it as simple as having your manhood challenged, or facing elimination? Didn’t Utah face the same variables and yet played so poorly you wonder how it won 22 games?
Or could it be that for the first time in three meetings, the Utes had Arizona’s full attention and got its best effort?
“They were really putting on a defensive clinic,’’ said Utah center Dallin Bachynski. He then provided examples, saying the Utes could operate neither a pick-and-roll game nor a swing-and-screen offense.
Krystkowiak was able to find some humor in the proceedings. “I was looking at the play sheet to see what we were going to run,’’ he said. “I can’t say I was really optimistic.’’
This is often a game of psyches as much as it is talent. On Jan. 26 at McKale Center, the Utes arrived 3-4 in league play after a loss at Arizona State. The Wildcats had just chopped up Colorado, a bigger threat, three days earlier.
And on Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats were coming off a draining double-overtime loss at ASU and just about overslept, winning in overtime on a night Aaron Gordon appeared strangely timid and out of gas. (He scored a career-low three points, committed five fouls and five turnovers).
This time Arizona didn’t have to manufacture any motivation. The Utes arrived with 21 victories and with bubble fever: beating the Wildcats might’ve propelled Utah into the NCAA tournament.
Arizona was looking for the whites of Utah’s eyes during warmup drills.
You can tell a lot about the UA’s motivation and mental state by watching its bench’s body language. When Kaleb Tarczewski dunked with his left-hand, followed a few seconds later by an alley-oop pass/dunk by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, giving the Wildcats an unfathomable 50-17 lead, assistant coach Book Richardson staged a little Dance Fever.
Richardson, whose usual bench demeanor is calm and reserved, hopped up and down, shaking both fists, for what seemed a mini-eternity. There were still 14 minutes to play. You’d have thought Arizona had clinched a berth in the Final Four, not just a spot in the Pac-12 semifinals.
“There’s a buzz in the air,’’ said Gordon. “Being in Vegas, there is a little extra energy.’’
If nothing else, Miller appears to have sold his club on the value of this tournament, on the importance of sharpening an edge for the NCAA tournament, rather than to just get it over, a necessary piece of busy-work, like Lute Olson‘s teams often did.
“They’ve been chompin’ at the bit for a few days,’’ said Krystkowiak. “We’re not ready to be a Final Four team yet; maybe Arizona is.’’
A look inside Utah’s locker room after Thursday’s game wasn’t pleasant. The Utes’ two leading players, Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright, shot a combined 1 for 14 afield. They average a combined 31 points; they scored seven.
Wright just shook his head, without any sound, when asked about Arizona’s suffocating defense.
What was there to say, anyway?
Like anything connected to college basketball in March, it’s unclear whether Arizona was as good as it looked on Thursday, or as vulnerable as it was a week ago when Oregon popped in 10 three-point baskets and shot 53 percent in the second half.
Said Krystkowiak: “You’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad as you think you are.’’
Somewhere in the middle, Arizona sits. And on Thursday it was sitting pretty.