Memo to University of Utah basketball fans (those who were AWOL):
The Utes want you to know it’s safe to come back — to the Huntsman Center, that is. The Utes are winning games again. Who would have thought? It might be time to pull back the curtain and see what’s there.
The Runnin’ Utes were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 – a spot up from last year – but here they are, sitting in second place halfway through the season.
Craig Smith could work his magic again. Maybe he can do for Utah what he did for the state of Utah a few years ago. In 2018, he inherited a USU team that hadn’t had a winning season in three years, and suddenly the Aggies were winning again under Smith — a 28-7 record in his debut season, then 26-8 and 20-9. a win rate of 75%.
The Utes said they wanted some of it. They hired Smith to replace Larry Krystkowiak who was there so long (10 years) that we finally knew how to spell his name. Guess what happened next after Smith took over.
Not correct. They lost more games. The Utes were 11-20 overall, 4-16 in the Pac-12, and at one point suffered a school-record-breaking 10-game losing streak. Most of the players had jumped towards the transfer portal after Krystkowiak’s departure, as is the norm these days – when push comes to shove, they go for it. When Krystkowiak left, so did six players from the rotation and the team’s top two scorers.
But this season, the Utes have an overall record of 14-7, 7-3 in conference play. They knocked off Arizona, the country’s No. 4 team at the time.
So the Utes have come back, which is more than can be said of their fans. Attendance was so low that the school decided to hide the top bowl behind a curtain — once again. They’ve been doing this for several years, another sign of hard times.
“They decided it created a better atmosphere,” says John Vu of the school’s sports information department. “They want to fill the bottom bowl. Once that’s full, they pull down the curtain and open the top bowl.”
For this, the school must have more than 8,500 fans. According to Deseret News beat writer Jay Drew, the average announced attendance for Utah’s first 10 home games was 5,449, but, as Drew noted, “the actual number of people on the courts … was significantly lower than that.” Drew reported that between 20 and 30% of ticket holders do not use their tickets; They stay at home.
It’s a complex problem for all college basketball programs these days. It might be easier for fans to just stay at home and watch on TV or the internet, if they even want to watch it at all. Basketball’s Biggest Problems: It’s not football.
For some, staying at home is a better option than driving to and from the game and finding (and paying for) parking, especially when the team is struggling. There are far more entertainment options and more televised drama than during the Rick Majerus era, when the Utes were a national powerhouse and averaged 13,000 viewers.
Utah faces another challenge: The 15,000-seat Huntsman Center is one of the 30 largest collegiate basketball arenas in the country. While other schools do not cover the top bowl with a curtain, few of them even have a top bowl in the first place.
But anyway, back to the team. The Utes have already surpassed last year’s overall wins after adding two transfers, three freshmen and two returned missionaries. The best player on the team is Branden Carlson, a 7-foot senior from Bingham High who chose to stay in Utah when everyone else ran out of the building to the transfer portal.
He was named Player of the Week by the Pac-12 for his performance over the past week in wins against Washington and Washington State. He averaged 26.5 points, eight rebounds, two assists, 2.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals in those games, and netted 21 of 29 field goals. It was the first time in 18 years that a Ute player had scored more than 25 points in consecutive games.
Carlson and his teammates might be worth the effort to actually see a home game at the arena. At least that’s what the school hopes.