It was definitely a disappointing ending after the Utes clawed back from a 21-point second half deficit. It's true to say the Runnin' Utes showed fight, grit, and a never quit attitude, but it's also fair to say they didn't close the deal. Utah is definitely better in late-game situations than they were last year. They're definitely more talented than they were last year, and they definitely have promising young players in Jakob Poeltl, Kyle Kuzma, and Brekkott Chapman. They also are definitely better with Jordan Loveridge in the lineup, even though they've acquitted themselves well in the star forward's absence. (That's the most we've typed "definitely" since our last Travis Wilson interview.)
It's Chapman Time:
It's past time for talented freshman forward Chapman to start. Coach K uses Chapman in important situations, has him guard dangerous players like Kansas' Perry Ellis, and he averages more points, more rebounds, more steals, and virtually the same number of blocks and assists as Reyes in fewer minutes. Today against KU, Chapman played more minutes than Reyes who was never seriously in foul trouble. Reyes is a nice player and gives quality minutes when he's out there. He's simply not as talented or as athletic as Chapman, two years his junior.
Utes Need an Assist:
In the first half, Utah had just one assist. I looked up synonyms for the word one, and one was "uncommon," which is something that cannot describe this team's assist statistics if they are to be a serious NCAA Tournament team, let alone a threat in the Pac-12. (For those who haven't paid attention, Washington is undefeated and beat San Diego State. Cal is better than expected and beat then No. 23 Syracuse.)
The Utes finished the game with just eight (to 11 for Kansas). It's quite simple that Utah is not sharing the ball anywhere that a player can get a basket. Passing around the perimeter and having that player hit a three-pointer may count as an assist, but it's really not. In the second half, Brandon Taylor executed the pick-n-roll with Poeltl for a layup. If the big Austrian is going to set those picks all game, it behooves the guards to actually pass him the ball rolling to the basket. Some teams are hedging the screen and forcing the guards farther out, but, really, that only means the big man is open because the defender is farther out on the floor.
While it will seem unfair to criticize a player like Delon Wright who was basically Utah's only offense, his glaring statistic was the number four, as in just four assists. Wright had zero in the first half, and zero in the clutch when Kansas had changed their defensive tactics to double Wright. It may sound pretty obvious, but that means someone else is open. Wright is too good a passer to not even look for the open man, which he wasn't. For this team to be elite, Wright has to average 5-8 assists, not 23 points.
Operator, We Need Help with Long Distance:
For the third straight game, Utah has shot poorly from three-point range, 4-of-19 for 21.1 percent shooting. The Utes have to figure out their shooting in order for a weapon the likes of Poeltl to have any room to work down low.
Utah has shooters in Taylor, Dakarai Tucker, and Kenneth Ogbe, but they seem much more focused on offense late in the game when they know they have to shoot. For the Utes to beat quality teams like Arizona, especially on the road, that troika needs to have that same focus in the early parts of the game when they don't have to shoot but have open looks. When Utah has a lead, they seem content to pass around the perimeter, only getting serious about shooting, regardless of opportunities, when the shot clock goes under 10 seconds. Three-point shooters need both confidence and rhythm, and you don't get that late in the shot clock; furthermore, you can't hit shots late in the shot clock toward the end of the game unless the players have warmed up earlier in the game with a few deep buckets and have confidence in their "hot hand."
All in all, Utah fans can be satisfied with a close loss on the road to the No. 10 team in the country. While this game was clearly a missed opportunity, it still helps the RPI and the tournament resume.
Next up for the Utes is another faux neutral court game in Las Vegas just a few blocks from UNLV (5-2, with losses to Stanford and ASU) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Utah takes on the Rebels at 9:30 p.m. MT on Dec. 20.