It's always good to take a step back, take a breath, and remove yourself from the emotions of the heated rivalry both sides know as the Holy War. (Let's be honest, in many instances, there's nothing holy about it.) So now that the dust has settled and the excitement of the win, the euphoria of Delon Wright's steal, behind the back juke, and dunk (a play that made last night's No. 3 entry on ESPN Sports Center's Top 10) has worn off, and Utah fans are now looking forward to a Top 15 showdown with No. 10 Kansas, it's time to reflect on what we've learned about this Utah team and the state of the rivalry.
Yes, it had to be the No. 1 topic. The Runnin' Utes shot 30 free throws last night, 30... on the road, but managed to make only 19 of those attempts. That's 63.3 percent, for those keeping track at home, which would be bad enough, but Utah made 8-of-10 in the first half. That means that in the second half, with the game on the line, Utah made just 11-of-20, which is 55 percent.
It's not just the misses, but also the timing of the misses. Against Wichita State, when Utah could have iced the game, they allowed the Shockers to quickly climb back into the game and nearly win by missing free throws late. Against BYU, many of the most frustrating misses were those that could have helped ice the game.
Brandon Taylor, then a 94.7 percent free throw shooter missed two and dropped his season average nine points to 85.7 percent from the line. This calls to mind his three straight missed free throws that would have given Utah the lead against Arizona last year. Taylor needs to be that reliable, clutch free throw shooter the Utes can turn to in the waning minutes. Right now, only Wright and Dallin Bachynski are close, and the player who most closely resembles that description is sitting on the bench in warmups, Jordan Loveridge.
And Poeltl... his free throw shooting average is now under 50 percent for the season (.449, 22-of-49). Any player who will garner as much attention and draw as many fouls as Poeltl has to hit free throws. As it is, an opposing team's best defense against the almost unstoppable Austrian big is to foul him. At this point, it's as good as a turnover.
Choose the Wright:
In one play, Delon Wright demonstrated the difference between a solid college player and an NBA player. Anyone who can go behind their back in transition to fake out a defender and dunk the ball on a 6-6 forward is something different.
"Delon's play was a big one," Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "To go behind the back – he struggled with that if you remember an instance at St. Mary's last year. He never ceases to amaze me. He is something else, man."
Wright has increased his scoring average to 15.4 points per game (seventh in the Pac-12), is pulling down 5.5 rebounds per game, is dishing out 4.9 assists (fifth in the conference), and is averaging a block and a steal per game.
Not in the Zone:
BYU's standard 2-3 zone gave Utah fits and led directly to the Cougars first-half-ending run that gave the home team a 1-point lead into the break. Utah seemed content to run clock and pass the ball around the perimeter, rather than attacking the basket. Even in the second half, the zone seemed to perplex the Utes, even while there was a truck-sized hole in the middle near the free throw line. Once he got in the game, freshman Kyle Kuzma flashed several times into the open hole in the zone, but the Utah guards seemed unwilling to make the entry pass. He was practically begging them to give him the ball, and they wouldn't. The one time they did, Kuzma drew the defense and made a nice interior pass to Poeltl for a shot.
Entry passes have been a problem all season, even with an open Poeltl posted up on the blocks, but that's not the worst part. One way to beat the zone is to shoot the opposing team out of it. Utah's three-point shooting last night was actually worse than its free throw shooting (2-for-14 for 14.3 percent), but usually the Utes have some dangerous three-point shooters in Taylor, Kenneth Ogbe, and Dakarai Tucker. But, along with Wright, none of the guards were ready to take a shot when receiving passes. No one seemed to want the ball, even in the final seconds of the shot clock, leading to passes that caused shot clock violations. D. Wright and players like Tucker and Taylor need to be guys who want the ball and are ready to take that shot.
The State Belongs to Utah:
Utah is ranked No. 13, which is obvious, and the only ranked team in the state. But the victory in Provo, coupled with the Cougars win in Aggie town, pretty well seals the deal. Utah belongs to the Utes at the moment.
Now, the real question is whether that, along with other factors (the national ranking, probable NCAA Tournament bid, etc) will influence in-state recruiting. Four-star recruit Brendan Bailey, a 6-6 forward and Thurl Bailey's son, has already committed to Arizona State for 2016, but the big get is 6-3 Lone Peak star Frank Jackson. Jackson is rated a four-star by ever major recruiting service and has a composite class ranking of 30. He originally committed to BYU, but the 2016 guard recently opened up his recruiting, and Utah is in the mix. However, others on the hunt for Jackson include Arizona and the other Coach K at Duke. Landing a blue chipper from Utah county and, especially, Lone Peak High School, would be a landscape-changing coup for Krystkowiak.
Odds and Ends:
Josh Sharp, the 6-7 forward, who shunned then new Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak in favor of transferring to the team down south, is now 1-2 versus his new rival.
The media has always hyped the Holy War as the game that splits families. People may forget that it sometimes splits even families from out of state. Utah freshman guard Eris Winder is now 1-0 vs his brother, BYU reserve guard Anson Winder. While Winder the younger didn't play due to the depth of the Utes and injuries, Winder the elder won't get a chance to even up the family series because he's a senior.
Freshmen forwards Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman are having exactly the impact Utah fans hoped they would. Each is averaging 6.3 points per game, while combining for 5.2 rebounds and 7-of-15 shooting from behind the three-point line. This depth has allowed Utah to not only weather the loss of Loveridge, but also to give starting forward Chris Reyes long breaks without much drop-off. On the defensive side of the ball, their length and quickness helped Utah contain BYU stars Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth. Being able to play both so soon, Coach K can build bookend forwards for the future of the program post Wright and Loveridge.