Tonight at 8 p.m. in the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Utah basketball fans see if the reclamation project known as the Runnin' Utes has been reclaimed. Utah is ranked in the preseason (No. 25 AP) for the first time since the 2000-2001 season, a 14-year span that has seen record lows, coaching changes, and massive roster turnover. Utah can begin to show they're back tonight, as they host the Cardinals of Ball State.
The Utes, picked number two in the Pac-12 (interestingly enough behind No. 2 Arizona), have a roster with the kind of talented depth at all positions not seen since the latter part of the Majerus era. Led by All America candidate and All Pac-12 First Team returning starter Delon Wright, the Utes can make a statement before turning their attention to next Tuesday's early season showdown with No. 16/17 San Diego State.
Against Ball State last season, Wright scored 23 points, dished out seven assists, and snared five rebounds to lead Utah to the 88-69 victory. The California native has been filling up the stat sheet since arriving on Utah's campus, but this season, his outside shooting touch will be the aspect of his game most pro scouts will scrutinize. Wright went 1-for-2 from three-point range in the exhibition against the Boxers of Pacific (Ore).
Returning junior forward Jordan Loveridge altered his shooting mechanics in offseason workouts, shortening his delivery, and it has proven effective. Loveridge went 4-for-4 from three-point range in the Utes 98-38 tuneup against Pacific (Ore). However, Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak noted the former West Jordan High School star missed some "bunnies" and will need to clean up his shooting around the basket against Ball State.
Krystkowiak has said recently he's "dangling a carrot" of sorts with the starting lineup, so it will be very interesting to see who Utah trots out onto the Huntsman Center floor to tip off the game. However, odds are good that D. Wright and Loveridge will start, along with returning starter Brandon Taylor (guard), Chris Reyes (6-7 JC transfer) at forward, and newcomer Jakob Poeltl in the post. The Austrian 7-footer gives Utah a skilled big at both ends of the floor. Poeltl finished with nine points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in just 21 minutes of play against Pacific. Also look for freshmen forwards Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma to get quite a bit of playing time, as well as for returning center Dallin Bachynski to get plenty of run.
Ball State (5-25 in 2013-2014) enters the newly renovated Huntsman Center with a very young team, only one senior on the roster. Sophomore point guard Zavier Turner, the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year, returns after averaging 12.1 points and 3.7 assists last season, but the Cardinals will have to replace leading scorer Chris Bond (also second in rebounds) and their leading rebounder Majok Majok. Turner tossed in 15 points in last seasons tilt with the Utes but struggled with the size and talent of Wright. The Cardinals are also small along the front line, with just two 6-8 forwards (Matt Kamienieki and Rashaun Richardson) and one slightly built 6-11 center (Mading Thok). However, the Cardinals matchup well with Utah's wings, with a plethora of 6-4 to 6-7 players to throw at the Utes.
"We want the guys in our program to be significantly improved from season to season, and I think you'll see that," said Ball State head coach James Whitford. "The guys in our program coming back have made significant strides. The freshman class we have is off to a great start."
Against Pacific (Ore), Utah unveiled two new additions, a new motion offense and a full-court press. The offense seemed to run very smoothly with the scorers and rebounders the Utes have at their disposal, and the press was very disruptive at times. With Ball State's youth, especially along the guard line, expect the Utes to throw a little press at the Cardinals to test their mettle. Utah's length and size under the boards should also give Ball State's fits, as the Utes feature five players 6-8 or better, including the two 7-footers. Because the Utes dominated Ball State last season in the paint (outscoring the Cardinals 44-24), look for Utah to again exploit their size and physical presence underneath, pounding the ball in the lane to Poeltl and Bachynski.
Ball State will also have to do a better job securing the basketball. Last season, the Utes scored 18 points off 15 Ball State turnovers and outscored the Cardinals 16-2 in transition baskets. The Utes will certainly look to get out and run again and test the improvement n the Cardinals fast-break defense.
For fans who may not remember, Utah and Ball State share a Majerus connection. Utah athletic director Chris Hill hired Majerus away from Ball State, beginning a golden era in Utah basketball. Tonight's game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.