SALT LAKE CITY — Sunday home games are now a reality for the University of Utah men's basketball team. The first two in team history are scheduled for this season — Jan. 27 vs. Stanford and Feb. 17 vs. Arizona. Both games will be broadcast on the newly created Pac-12 Networks.
"I clearly, clearly, clearly understand the Sunday concern," said Utah athletics director Chris Hill, who explained that circumstances have changed since the Utes joined the Pac-12.
Special scheduling consideration is not being given to a community where the predominate religion, the LDS Church, discourages its members from attending sporting events on Sunday.
"We're trying to balance, as always, what's good for our team, our fans and being a good citizen in the Pac-12," Hill said. "Clearly, going into the Pac-12, we understood that in all sports but football that we may be playing some Sunday games."
Hill said the new reality in men's basketball has prompted Utah officials to discuss other conflicts as well, recognizing that there are games that simply don't fit into every fan's schedule. They're progressing on a plan to allow season customers the benefit of exchanging any tickets they choose not to use (regardless of the reason) for an equal number of seats to other home games.
Hill hopes such a plan, similar to a program that Pioneer Theatre has for its season-ticket holders, will let them know how much they are appreciated.
"Of course, we would like to minimize and have as few Sunday games as possible," Hill explained. "One year we may have one, one year we may have two."
Sunday games have been a rarity for the Runnin' Utes. Besides never playing one at home, they've only had 16 overall (13 at neutral sites, eight in the NCAA Tournament) and none in conference play since a 1998 game at New Mexico. This year's schedule also includes a Sunday road date at Stanford on March 3.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak understands it'll be an adjustment for fans. However, he noted that it's out of the program's hands because television is always going to plug in some things with premium teams (like Arizona and Stanford) who have earned the right to play in prime slots.
Krystkowiak added that no one is being asked to alter their standards. He's just hoping that those who can will work the Utes into their schedule on those Sundays.
"If somebody's not opposed to it from a church point of view with what they're going to do on a Sunday, then I think it's a pretty good opportunity," Krystkowiak said. "I know one game is at 7 at night and there's not a whole lot of other things going on Sunday night other than '60 Minutes.' So hopefully we can get them in there."
Utah's attendance ranked 57th in the nation last season. The Utes drew an average of 8,394 fans over 15 games.
The 2012-13 schedule includes 18 home dates. All of them, as in every single one, will be televised.
"It's the classic example of the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry," Krystkowiak said, noting the pros and cons of such coverage. The coaching staff can tell recruits that mom and dad will be able to see every game on TV. On the other hand, there's a lot of basketball being broadcast.
"I think it's important to just focus on the things that we can control in this scenario, which is trying to put a good product on the floor and have a group of kids that the fans that come to watch us play are going to be proud of," Krystkowiak said.
Hill agrees, although he noted that the upside of TV is increased exposure and revenue.
"There's a series of things that affect attendance. A good team is one of the elixirs for helping with attendance, and I think Larry's doing a good job putting some things together," he said. "That's not the only answer. But it is where it is on TV, so there's no sense spending your time worrying about if a game is on TV or not. It's going to be on. It's nothing we can worry about it."
As such, Hill and his staff are busy working on ways to make things better for season customers and Utah's other fans.
"That's where we are focusing," he said. "Worrying about something that isn't going to change isn't a good use of anybody's time."
Krystkowiak is convinced things can get rolling inside the Huntsman Center once again.
"A lot of it is going to start with our students," he said, adding that meetings with MUSS leaders have already taken place. "We've got to crank up the students again and bring the pulse back to the arena."
Taking care of business on the court, however, is Krystkowiak's top priority. Part of the process in doing so includes a toned down non-conference schedule.
Utah will play nine of its 12 games in the Huntsman Center. The home slate features Boise State, Cal State Northridge, College of Idaho, Sacramento State, SMU and Willamette, as well as a Thanksgiving tournament featuring Central Michigan, Idaho State and Wright State.
Road games are scheduled for BYU, SMU and Texas State.
Krystkowiak acknowledges that there's certainly some teams, at least on paper, that Utah is expected to beat.
"We're not going to break any records for strength of schedule. It's not my intention. My intention is not to schedule games that we think are going to start helping our win-loss percentage. The last thing I'm worried about is my coaching record when it's all said and done. It's not doing that," Krystkowiak said.
"But I think with the state of our program right now and where we are with the number of young kids and trying to get this thing built, it puts us in a position where if we take care of business we can gain some confidence in some of those games."
At the same time, however, Krystkowiak expects the Utes to have their hands full in five or six of the games.
The Utes went 6-25 last season and almost completely overhauled the roster for the second consecutive year — mostly with youngsters.
"Hopefully we can gain a little confidence and not get beat up like we did a year ago, where a lot of those games we really didn't have much of a chance to win," Krystkowiak said.
Hill noted that non-conference schedules can always be a topic of debate. For now, however, the preferred path for Utah and its many new faces is clear as the program works through hard times.
The Utes, Hill explained, need a chance to learn a few more things and win some games in order to build some momentum going into Pac-12 play.
"As that grows, then of course your non-conference schedule can grow and get tougher," Hill said. "And that's kind of our intention."
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