Navy SEAL training turned Utah’s hell into sweet 16 run
National College Football Writer
Navy SEAL training turned Utah’s hell into Sweet 16 run
March 25, 2015 7:21 am ET
PORTLAND, Ore. — They called it “Hell Week,” and at the time, Utah basketball players hated the experience in September.
How many college kids want to spend three days with two U.S. Navy SEAL commanders? Who wants to sleep on a weight room floor and get phones and watches taken away so there’s no sense of time? Why would you want to roll through the sand and get tormented physically and emotionally?
So yeah, Utah players hated “Hell Week.” But to this day, they swear those 72 hours are why the Utes are in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 for the first time in a decade — the byproduct of a remarkable turnaround by coach Larry Krystkowiak from a 6-25 record in 2011-12.
The Navy SEAL training produced “by far the hardest three days of my life,” Utah senior center Dallin Bachynski said. “A couple years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to get through it all. I don’t think a lot of guys who were in the program a couple years ago would have been mentally strong enough to get through it all. But being able to draw on each other, knowing the guy to the left and right of you is struggling just as hard and cares about you, it brought us extremely close as a team.”
If it sounds like a cliche to connect war with sports, well, it probably is. But that doesn’t mean the metaphor lacks a punch.
Outside the box is how Krystkowiak (a.k.a. The Other Coach K) operates as Utah prepares for Duke and Mike Krzyzewski this week.
Krystkowiak is the coach who does yoga. He’s the coach who’s so superstitious about the number seven — and its biblical significance — that Utah’s schedule depends on players hitting seven free throws in a row to end practice, or the digits on a clock adding up to seven. He’s the coach who burns sweetgrass, a plant traditionally used in Native American prayer, in the locker room before games.
“I almost got in trouble back there ‘cause the smoke alarms got a little carried away tonight,” Krystkowiak said last Saturday after Utah’s come-from-behind victory over Georgetown. “It works in the Huntsman Center because I think all our smoke alarms are broken. You get into some of these venues, I probably need to leave it at home.”
Now Krystkowiak is the coach who flies in a Navy SEAL to remind Utah players of the hell they experienced last September. Commander Mark McGinnis surprised the players by showing up in Portland for the opening two rounds.
“He had a message each day — always spot on,” Krystkowiak said. “He’s led like 400 different missions, rescues, never lost a life. He gets it. He knows how to lead and knows how to teach me to lead and knows how to push buttons. It was really cool. It was one of the brightest things and most special things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Back in September, probably only Krystkowiak liked the idea of Navy SEAL training. “It was horrible,” Utah guard/forward Dakarai Tucker said.
Utah players started by changing into camouflage pants and shirts and then the rigor began. Watches and phones weren’t allowed. Players brought sleeping bags to sleep on the floor with mats.
The drills were straight out of the Navy SEAL playbook. Players carried large pipes filled with water on their shoulders. They did sit-ups in the sand holding the pipes, and pushups in the sand as well. They did army crawls in the sand, used weighted medicine balls in the pool, and got mentally and physically drained while bonding with each other through the miserable experience.
“We had no clue of the time,” Bachynski said. “One morning they woke us up at 4 o’clock with air horns, yelling, banging stuff. They really tormented us a little bit — physically exhausting, very uncomfortable because you’d start swimming in the pool and then you’re rolling in the sand. So you get sand everywhere, no matter what crevice or crack. I had cuts on my elbows from harder sand.”
The work paid off. At one point this season, Utah reached the top 10 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1999.
To be fair, “Hell Week” isn’t the only reason Utah is preparing for Duke. A two-day period last April helped the Utes reach this point. That’s when 7-foot Austrian center Jakob Poeltl decided to sign with Utah and point guard Delon Wright opted to bypass the NBA and return for his senior season.
Poeltl is thriving as Utah’s starting center (9.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks) and might be a future NBA lottery pick. Wright is one of the game’s best players and fills up the stat sheet so much — 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.0 blocks — that he often hears he’s too unselfish.
“A lot of people tell me (that),” Wright said. “The team is doing well with me being like that, so sometimes I just have to continue doing that.”
Looking back now, Krystkowiak says his six-win season in Year 1 at Utah wasn’t as bad as people thought. He figured there was a chance Utah would go 0-18 in the Pac-12, “and we won a game early in league and it’s kind of like being in Vegas playing on house money there for a while. So winning three games in the league took a little edge off.”
Still, Krystkowiak described a “surreal” feeling when he knew Utah was headed to the Sweet 16. He spotted his family and old college teammates in the stands, and after the game, he made a point of waving animatedly to some Utah fans in the upper deck to thank them for coming.
For many Utah players, rallying from an 11-point deficit against Georgetown simply followed the course from “Hell Week.” If that sounds trite, well, so be it. Bachynski recalled how McKinnis, the Navy SEAL commander, told the team that Georgetown outweighs Utah at every position but to be relentless.
“He said, ‘I know you guys. I know what you can do. I saw you fight and push for pain and accomplish great things. It doesn’t end here.'”
No, it doesn’t. “Hell Week” never felt so sweet.
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