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Utah beefs up its non-league slate entering potential breakout season

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Utah
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Feb 23, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak signals to a player during the second half against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Utah won 86-63. (Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports)

There are few better measures of how far Utah has come under Larry Krystkowiak than the non-conference schedule the Utes released this weekend. 

A program notorious for tissue-soft schedules during its rebuilding period has massively upgraded its non-league slate entering what is expected to be a breakout season.

Among the marquee games on Utah's schedule next season are a home game against formidable Wichita State, a date with preseason top five Kansas in Kansas City and visits to rival BYU and young but talented UNLV. The Utes also have a tentative road game at Mountain West favorite San Diego State on Nov. 18, though both sides are still trying to finalize that matchup.

Assuming that game doesn't fall through, that would give Utah three games against teams seeded fourth or better in the NCAA tournament last season and two more on the road against opponents who don't often fall on their home courts. That's a far cry from some of the abysmal schedules the Utes played as the program sought to recover from a nightmarish 6-25 campaign in Krystkowiak's debut 2011-12 season.

The following year, Utah released an embarrassing slate that included NAIA foes Willamette and Evergreen State, Division I bottom feeders Sacramento State, Idaho State and Cal State Northridge and no marquee opponents aside from the annual BYU contest. Last season, Utah's schedule was only marginally better, which contributed to the Utes receiving virtually no NCAA tournament consideration despite 21 regular season wins and Pac-12 victories over UCLA, Colorado, Cal and Arizona State. 

With Pac-12 player of the year candidate Delon Wright, high-scoring forward Jordan Loveridge and the rest of the core of last year's team all due back, Utah has a chance to be Arizona's toughest challenger next year in league play. As a result, Krystkowiak scheduled accordingly, making sure the Utes will be tested prior to the start of Pac-12 play next season.

Krystkowiak took a bit of heat in Utah last winter for underestimating how good his 2013-14 team would be and failing to schedule well enough to give it a realistic chance at the NCAA tournament. Thus, he should also get credit this season for amending his mistake and creating a schedule befitting of a program on the rise.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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