Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Utah Basketball Preview #1

With non-conference play out of the way in victorious 58-point fashion, our collective basketball attention may now fully focus on our new Pac-12 brothers.  Much like football, our new conference has been kind, keeping the powers of the Pac-12 off the dawn of the conference slate, allowing the Buffs to ease into Pac-12 play.  Powers such as UCLA, Arizona and Cal can wait, the Buffs kick off their inaugural Pac-12 schedule with struggling "travel partner" Utah.
Coach Boyle and staff didn't have to work too hard last night, but now the bright lights are on.  From: the BDC
The newly reformed athletic rivalry, forced upon our two schools through geography and logistics, got off to a rousing start for those of us wearing black and gold tinted sunglasses.  Barely over a month ago I returned from Salt Lake City, having seen CU handle the favored Utes on the gridiron.

The basketball version of the series will almost assuredly pale in comparison to the football scene, which saw Utah fans throwing stadium detritus at CU Head Coach Jon Embree and the Buffs bench.  However, it is none-the-less important that CU kick off conference play on a high note with a victory over their "rival."
Sad Ute is Sad.  From: the BDC
While the football rivalry, which I would like to remind everyone recently saw a Buffs victory, has a storied, albeit disjointed, history, the basketball version of the rivalry is as historically insignificant as the CU-Nebraska hardwood contests were.  CU has only played Utah a relatively scant 35 times on the court (with CU owning a 20-15 head-to-head advantage; a recent 4-year series ended split 2-2), and those contests rarely determined anything of significance.  This Rumble in the Rockies is mostly mute.

But that's not a fault of the Utes.  Utah is a traditional power, despite their losing record with CU, and one of the premier programs in the Rocky Mountain Region.  36 conference titles, 26 Tournament appearances, 15 Sweet Sixteen berths, and 4 Final Four runs adorn the rafters at the Jon M. Huntsman Center; truly a banner collection to be envious of.  If CU is the regional football behemoth, Utah is the basketball counterpart.
The Keith Van Horn era is long past, considering the current struggles in SLC.
But, all of that is in the past.  A new conference offers opportunities to create a new status quo.  The BasketBuffs begin their version of the new era Saturday afternoon at the CEC.  If you're worried about making your New Years Eve party, don't worry, tip-off is scheduled for 4pm.  Plenty of time to properly support the Buffs and still make your drunken revelry.  The Buffs will need your help, as the students are still out on break, and their feisty presence will be sorely missed.  If you absolutely can't make it up to Boulder, feel free to check out the proceedings on ROOT Sports.

Click below for my preview...

Opponents season so far -

While the Utes may be a traditional hoops power, the program is mired in some of the worst play in school history.  The departure of coaching legend Rick Majeras in 2004 (Coach Majeras had lead the Utes to a 323-95 record) left a large figurative and literal gap on the Utes bench.  Utah has since struggled to match the big man's success, and the program has been in full-on flounder mode ever since.  Only once since '05 have the Utes showcased a Tournament squad, with most seasons during that span ending with more losses than victories.

This season has only seen recent struggles amplified as Utah has stumbled out of the gate in 2011-12 to the tune of a 3-9 record.  But the full story is much more embarrassing than that.  With 20+ point losses to basketball 'powerhouses' like UNC-Asheville, Boise St, and Cal St Fullerton, this current incarnation of the Ute program is debasing the very name of Utah hoops.  Kenpom currently has them rated as the 315th best program in the nation (out of 345), and Beehive State minnows like Utah Valley and Southern Utah are rated higher.  Hell they even managed to lose by 29 to I-84 neighbor Weber State last Thursday.
Woof.  Those are some sorrowful faces.  From: the Salt Lake Trib
This program, which by all historical right should eternally be competitive, if not quality, has been reduced to the level of Houston Baptist and the Citadel.  WHAT THE FUCK!?! (It certainly puts some victorious inconsistency against Texas Southern in perspective.)

The key behind the Ute's putrid performance this season is a defense rated as the 333rd best in the country.  Utah allows an eye-popping 56% eFG while struggling to cause turnovers or limit second chances when the odd shot is missed.  Opponents have shot 41% from behind the arc, and 53% from inside; both very poor efforts.  Just an overall train-wreck of a defense.

Their offense isn't much better (Kenpom has them at #283 in O), and the whole package is a recipe for disaster.  Good luck with that, Ute fans.

Coaching - 

Leading the rotting carcass of the Ute basketball program into battle is first year head coach Larry Kryskowiak (had to look up that spelling).  A native Montanan, Coach Krystkowiak enjoyed a 12-year professional career before heading into the coaching ranks.

Having coached his alma mater, Montana, to back-to-back Tournament appearances in the middle 'aughts, Krystkowiak tried dipping his feet into the shark-infested NBA waters.  Having lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a dismal 31-69 record, he was fired in '08, and had to wait until this season with Utah to get another full-time coaching gig.
I doubt Coach Krystkowiak is smiling much these days.  From: the Deseret News
I don't want to pass immediate judgement on Coach Krystkowiak for the Utes current struggles.  Not only are coaching transitions often fraught with uncertainty and poor play, but his predecessors left the cupboard considerably bare by underwhelming on the recruiting trail and running off remaining talent (like CU's own Carlon Brown).  However, this current level of failure is particularly bad. 

If you're a Ute, and I'm sorry if you are, do take some solace in the fact that most of these early season disasters have come either on the road or on a neutral court.  Still, Utah is quite terrible, and at some point Coach Krystkowiak is going to take the blame.

Star Players -

If you thought the 2011-12 Utah season couldn't get any worse, you'd have been shocked to hear the news that leading scorer Josh Watkins was suspended indefinitely earlier this season.  Apparently the kid likes to sleep in class.  Regardless, "indefinately" turned out to only mean one game, which the Utes lost by 29 to Cal St Fullerton, and the Utes are well-heeled to have their only reliable option back on the court.

The 5-11 point guard from New York sports a stacked 211 lb frame, and drives it towards the hoop with reckless abandon.  His style lends to drawing a high number of fouls (6.8 per 40 minutes played), but only makes 68% of his free throws; he's also a lousy 3-point shooter, shooting 22% on the season. Watkins leads the nation in percentage of possessions utilized, and scores over 16 points per game, so look to hear his name early and often Saturday afternoon. 
Watkins is pretty much going it alone this season.
One other Ute to pay attention to is the 6-10 junior center Jason Washburn.  The big fella' from Michigan, who ESPN oddly lists as a true 7-footer, contributes 11/7 to the Ute cause.  He makes 65% of his shots from the floor, and and could be a big problem for CU inside.
The Buffs need to keep the big guy quiet this weekend.
A broken right foot will keep gigantic 7-3 center David Foster from factoring this season, but keep that name in the back of your mind, as he's a shot-blocking machine.

Prediction -

Inconsistencies be damned, CU absolutely must come out of this game with a victory (hell, CU needs to take both contests with Utah this season); and I feel that they should be able to handily meet that charge.  Utah has yet to win outside of SLC, and even an egg laid by the Buffs should still be enough to power the team through to victory. 

The Utes have this one last chance to hit the reset button on the season, so it will be very important to get out ahead early.  With defense akin to a wet paper bag, and a season spiraling down the drain, a knockout blow landed in the first 10 minutes could end all resistance from our neighbors to the west.  If the Buffs let them hang around, however, things could get "feisty" as the desperate Utes look to gin up some pride at the start of conference play.

If CU can grab a few early fouls on Watkins, possibly take a charge or two as he barrels into the lane, the Buffs should have no problem.

CU 77 - Utah 60



jgisland said...

This is one of those games that should never be close. I hope that actually proves to be the case.

RumblinBuff said...

The case was proven