Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, January 31, 2014

2013-14 Utah Basketball Preview #1

AllBuffs hoops moderator and friend of the blog James Lucas has repeatedly said over the last few weeks that the season begins anew on February 1st against Utah.  He's not wrong - playing the SoCal and Arizona schools in the immediate aftermath of losing Spencer Dinwiddie was never going to go well, and the results proved that CU was in desperate need of a breather and a winnable home game.  We'll get a much better picture of what this team will be going forward after tomorrow's action.

These are not your slightly older brother's Utes, however.  They're an actual basketball team now; a credit to their conference, rather than an anchor.  Playing them is no longer a guaranteed victory.  CU will have to play a focused, disciplined basketball game to emerge victorious tomorrow afternoon.  They'd better get it too, as the slippery slope to the finish only gets steeper from here on out.


The Buffs are back on the hardwood starting at high noon on Saturday.  Coverage can be found on the Pac-12 Network, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 
Playing without Josh Scott, who was still on the bench after being Bachynski'd, the Buffs played their way to a sluggish 60-50 win over the 'rival' Utah Utes, avenging an ugly defeat from earlier in the year.

This was a game so nearly unwatchable that I can honestly note that the best action of the night took place off the court, when Beau Gamble caused a disturbance by busting through the Utah huddle.  Outside of Andre Roberson notching 13 rebounds to become only the second player in program history to record over 1,000 boards, there's not much to highlight from the box score.  To underscore, Sabatino Chen had 12 points, finishing only one away from Spencer Dinwiddie's 13 for game-high honors. I love the kid, but there's no reason Sabatino Chen should be threatening to be the leading scorer in a Pac-12 game.
The hair!  It's magnificent!  From: the BDC
This was basketball at it's dullest, although you'd be hard pressed to expect anything different when the Buffs and Utes get together.  In fact, it's quite common, essentially a guarantee, that these games will be sluggish, dreary affairs.  I dare you to go through the logs of this series since re-alignment.  It's not a pretty picture. Every single one of them has been a sleep-inducing slog, utterly forgettable in every way possible.  To this day, when I'm battling insomnia, all I have to do is think back to that 2012 game in LA, and I'm out like a light.

The two teams have averaged fewer than 61 possessions in the five meetings, and only once, in the first game of the set, no less, has a team cracked 60 points.  It's almost enough to make me question my love of the sport entirely.  Now, with Dinwiddie out, and the Buffs still learning to walk, the likelihood of a sixth-consecutive snooze-fest between the old regional rivals is all but set in stone.  I guess the best advice I can offer is to bring a book with you to the arena tomorrow.  Short of that, I've heard LSD helps.

The Utes in '13-'14 - 

For their fifth season since their last winning campaign, the Utes have come up with a new trick: playing competent, competitive basketball.  Entering Saturday, they carry with them a very respectable 14-6 record, and even feature in Kenpom's top-50. Sure, that record was overtly inflated by a bevy of RPI 250+ fluff (Evergreen St?  St Katherine?!?!), but I think we can all forgive this program a safe platform with which to rebuild their confidence. After all, it was only two years ago that they were one of the worst teams in major conference history.
Utah didn't take many chances in non-conference play, but at least they didn't take many losses, either.
After going 11-1 against their cupcakes (the lone loss coming via two points against a solid Boise State team on the road) they've hit Pac-12 play with a vigor not seen by the Utes in the brief existence of the Pac-12. While they've only gone 3-5 to start, they've competed in all five loses, falling by an average of only four points per game.  In addition to a conference-opening loss in overtime to Oregon and a statement-making win over UCLA, they've played Washington, ASU, and Arizona all well on the road, and finally look like the storied basketball program that they are.  The basketball equivalent of a bye week no longer, no one is taking the Utes lightly, anymore.

One thing that hasn't changed is that these guys play slow.  They're in the mid-60s in terms of possessions per game, and take almost 19 seconds per trip to get off a shot (269th nationally).  While the pace is still measured, however, they're at least significantly more efficient with their time on the ball.  Based around the nation's 5th-best field goal percentage at the rim, it's one of the strongest half-court offenses around.  The Utes hit nearly 53% of their field goal attempts outside of transition situations by attacking the rim, making those long possessions deadly.
The Utes do a great job of getting to the rim.
Defensively, they're much improved.  Averaging an adjusted .96 ppp (37th nationally), Utah can actually force some stops this season, rather just rely on opponents falling asleep.  By playing some zone and clogging up the lane, they are one of the best in the country in limiting assists, and defend the rim like few others in the game (only 29% of shot attempts come inside the paint).  Overall, a lot like you remember, just amplified because the offense is so much better.

Star Players -

The star in SLC continues to be local product Jordan Loveridge.  The 6-6 swing forward from West Jordan, UT can do so many things on the court, and leads the team in points and rebounds, as a result.  I've seen him take guys off dribble, back defenders down with his post moves, and attack in transition.  A little undersized for his ideal position, he's none-the-less one of the best players in the West.  Watching Wes Gordon defend him should be a treat.
Loveridge is a versatile threat.
While Loveridge is the engine at the heart of the Utah attack, the player that has transformed their offense into competency is JuCo transfer Delon Wright.  Having a player like Wright on the roster is an evolutionary step forward for the Utes. They now have a guard in uniform who can break down an opposing defense, and create his own scoring opportunity when needed. Previously, the Utah backcourt had been a joke, rarely capable of challenging a small conference squad. Now with Wright in the fold, it's a different story, and the Utes are much more dangerous, as a result
Wright adds a different dimension to the Ute attack
The 6-5 two guard out of the City College of San Francisco makes his impact by continually attacking the rim, taking nearly 61% of his attempts in the paint, and hitting over 77% of those.  Along with some solid defense, rebounding, and assist skills, he fills the stat sheet with 16/7/5/3 averages, which should easily put him all-conference territory.  With him on the court (and he usually is, using over 90% of available minutes), unaware Buff fans are going to be shocked by how the Utes look.  I'm worried about who will guard him, and I won't be surprised if he has a monster game.

Rounding out the backcourt is point guard Brandon Taylor.  He chips in 10 points per game to go along with about three assists.  He's probably the best three point shooter on the roster, but, at 46%, isn't nearly as dangerous as some of the shooters CU has seen recently.
Taylor compliments Loveridge and Wright well.
Beyond that core three, the rest of the team is built around a rotation of seven or so players who split the other two on-court spots.  Highlighting that bunch is Dallin Bachynski, the younger brother of you-know-who.  He's been playing some big minutes recently, and has been rewarding the confidence with similarly big performances.  Dallin went for 10/16/3 on the Arizona swing, providing a key interior presence against some of the best frontlines in the Pac-12.  While both losses, Bachynski helped prove that the Utes are for real in those games.

Coaching - 

The other Coach K, Larry Krystkowiak, finally has some positive things flowing in Salt Lake City.  It was a long road back from basketball irrelevancy, but he has the Utes in position to actually contend for post-season consideration.  Honestly, good for him.
Behind Larry K, the Utes are back!
I'll admit, I didn't think he was going to be able to pull it off. The trick has been completely turning over the roster.  Utah, as constructed when he took over in 2011, was about as far from a power conference team as you can conceive.  After the destructive tenure of Jim Boylen, the talent pool had been completely gutted. Through recruiting hauls like Loveridge, and timely transfers like Wright, that situation is a thing of the past, and the roster bears almost no resemblance to what we saw two years ago.  Thank God, by the way.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 8-3.  Against the spread: 5-6.  Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +2.45 pts/gm)

Lines as of Friday @ 11pm - CU -2.5

As has consistently been the case with CU/Utah games in the Pac-12 era, this one will be a dog.  Expect long possessions, lethargic play, and a general start-stop tempo.  Accordingly, the theme of the day will be the old Askia Booker adage of 'whatever it takes.'  CU just needs a win, no questions asked, to keep Tournament hopes on life support.  At home, with a renewed attention to defense, I'll say they find a way.

CU 58 - Utah 54


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