Arizona Wildcats Basketball: 5 Greatest Concerns Against Utah
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The Arizona Wildcats basketball team will attempt on Thursday to win its third game this season over Utah, which did not show any trepidation in the postgame locker room Wednesday following a 67-61 win over Washington.
"I don't have nearly the nervous feeling that I maybe had leading into this game," Utah coach Larry Krystowiak said about facing the Arizona Wildcats after beating the Huskies in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "Hopefully our guys are feeling the same thing."
The No. 1-seeded Arizona Wildcats are rested, having earned a bye during the first day of the tournament. The eighth-seeded Utes are on a roll entering the quarterfinal game, having won four of their last five games since losing in overtime against Arizona in Salt Lake City on Feb. 19.
Utah (21-10) is confident heading into Thursday's game because it also played the Wildcats close in Tucson for most of the game on Jan. 26 before losing 65-56. The Utes trailed by only four points with almost five minutes remaining in regulation before the Wildcats put the physical, hard-fought game away with a 10-2 run.
A nine-game losing streak to Arizona since Utah upset the defending national champion Wildcats in the 1998 Elite Eight does not faze the Utes.
"What are they, No. 4 in the country?" Utah guard Brandon Taylor asked me about Arizona following the Utes' victory over Washington on Wednesday. "At the end of the end day, we're still in the same conference. We can compete with them. We're going to play hard. We're going to play really hard."
Utah's confidence is at a high level, a result of Krystowiak's ability to motivate his young team. The Utes have only one senior, and that player (forward Renan Lenz) is not in the primary rotation.
Krystowiak's coaching ability is one reason why Arizona should be concerned heading into its game with the Utes on Thursday. Other reasons include Utah learning from its mistakes playing against Arizona twice and the game being at a neutral site without a partisan Arizona crowd.
The following is a slideshow of the five greatest concerns Arizona should have facing Utah.
No. 5: The Crowd Factor (Not a Road Game for Utah)
No other team in the Pac-12 is crowd-dependent like Utah, and the Utes feel at home at the MGM Grand Garden Arena because of their significant fan contingent.
Utah is 18-2 at home and 2-8 on the road. The Utes won their first neutral game of the season against Washington on Wednesday in the Pac-12 tournament.
The atmosphere, however, was not close to being neutral, with Utah's fans having the decided edge over the Washington contingent in numbers and vocal support.
Arizona will also have plenty of fan support in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal game, which is already sold out. Neither team will have a home-court edge, and that sounds good to the Utes.
"At our place, it was a great atmosphere, and at their place, it was the same thing," Utah junior guard Delon Wright told me about the Utes' two conference games against Arizona this season. "Now we're at a neutral site. Hopefully, we can use the fan's energy to help us."
No. 4: Utah Is Pac-12's Top Shooting Team
No team in the Pac-12 shot the ball better than Utah in the regular season.
The Utes led the conference, making 49.7 percent of their shots.
Utah junior guard Delon Wright is the only non-center or non-power forward among the Pac-12's top eight shooters. He ranks third with a shooting percentage of 58.4. UCLA post player Tony Parker (60.4 percent) leads the league, and Oregon State power forward Devon Collier (60.1 percent) is next.
The Utes struggled against Arizona's defense, however, making only 19 of 47 field-goal attempts (40.4 percent) in the first game and 23 of 53 (43.3 percent) in the second game.
Utah has failed to get a hot hand against Arizona, but the Utes' overall shooting performance this season indicates they have the ability to put the ball in the basket at any time.
No. 3: Utah's Defensive Rebounding Tough Match for Arizona
To a player, Utah talked Wednesday about how much of a challenge it will be against Arizona in terms of rebounding, especially the Wildcats' offensive rebounding ability.
Utah has the ability to combat that, ranking second in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding with 26.4 a game.
The Wildcats manhandled Utah on the offensive glass, pulling down 20 in their 65-56 win Jan. 26 in Tucson. Arizona out-rebounded Utah 40-29 overall.
Coach Krystowiak said Arizona's physical dominance over the Utes on the glass was similar to smashmouth football.
The Utes responded well in the last meeting, out-rebounding Arizona 37-31. The Wildcats were without leading rebounder Aaron Gordon, however, in almost the last nine minutes because he fouled out.
"You just have to play hard all 40 minutes against Arizona," sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge told me in the Utes' locker room. "You have to play hard every single play. You have to rebound on offense and defense.
"They're tough on the glass. Even if they take a bad shot, they're still flying in. We have to take that away from them."
No. 2: Krystowiak Second Only to Miller as Pac-12's Top Coach
Arizona coach Sean Miller earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, but Utah's Larry Krystowiak was just a notch below him considering how Krystowiak has turned around the Utes' program in only three years.
Krystowiak was 6-25 in his first season in 2011-12. The Utes improved to 15-18 last season. They are 21-10 now and will playing in the postseason, most likely in the NIT, unless they run the table in the Pac-12 tournament.
A former NBA player, assistant coach and head coach, Krystowiak knows how to develop talent and handle his players the right way. The Utes do not have a senior in their primary rotation, which means they are primed for a Pac-12 championship run next season.
Win or lose against Arizona on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, Krystowiak knows he's molding a winning program.
"There's a special style about him," sophomore guard Brandon Taylor told me after Utah defeated Washington 67-61 in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"As a coach, you feel his discipline but you also feel like he's there with you, guiding you the right way. He's more of a teacher. We're together as a head coach and player. We're not different. We're on the same page. We communicate."
No. 1: Utah Can Score and Defend
Utah finished the regular season as the third-leading scoring team in the Pac-12 at 77.2 points per game, and they were equally impressive on the defensive end, placing second behind Arizona.
The Utes allowed only 64 points a game, while Arizona limited opponents to an average of only 58.7 points. Utah is the only Pac-12 team to finish in the top three in each category.
Arizona has not allowed an opponent to eclipse the 80-point mark. Utah has allowed that only once when UCLA beat the Utes 80-66 on Feb. 15.
Krystowiak told reporters after Utah's 67-61 win over Washington that his defense is "locked in." The Huskies could not respond to Utah changing its zone defenses and man-to-man pressure.
"Looking at the stats for Washington...to have five assists, I think that would probably be the story line for the game," Krystowiak said. "We didn't let their offense run on all cylinders."
Arizona has offensive firepower as well, especially in transition. The Wildcats, however, shot a combined 41 percent (48 of 116) against Utah in the two games. They have made 46.7 percent of their shots in the regular season overall.
Utah leads the conference, making 49.7 percent of its shots. It is second defensively, allowing opponents to make only 40.8 percent of their field-goal attempts.