Utah football, ranked No. 22, will start the Utah sports two-fer in Vegas on Dec. 20 when they take on Colorado State (10-2) in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, but afterward No. 14 Utah basketball (7-2) takes on UNLV (7-2) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at 9:30 p.m. MT on ESPN2.
UNLV is coming off a 75-73 overtime win against the Portland Pilots on Wednesday. This is the first of two games for the Rebels against ranked Pac-12 foes (their next game is against Arizona).
The Runnin' Utes are looking to rebound from their 63-60 loss to Kansas last Saturday, a disappointing game in which they came all the way back from a 21-point deficit only to lose in the waning seconds. UNLV is the last test in Utah's nonconference schedule (they finish with South Dakota State and Carroll College Montana at home before starting conference play). A win would be huge for either team, so there's plenty of motivation on both sides.
The Runnin' Rebels lead the series 24-22 over the Runnin' Utes, including beating Utah 78-58 in 2011 in their last basketball game in the Mountain West Conference. Both head coaches are in their fourth year at their respective programs. Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak has a 49-57 record at Utah while UNLV head coach Dave Rice has amassed a record of 77-34.
Playing at the MGM Grand Arena does not present the same atmosphere as playing at the Thomas & Mack Center, which should help the Runnin' Utes. There should also be a large contingent of Utah fans in Las Vegas, since Utah has already sold out their 7,500-ticket allotment for the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. UNLV is running promotions (like test drive a car for a free ticket) to try to get fans to go to the game.
UNLV Versus the Pac-12:
UNLV has lost twice this season, and both losses came against Pac-12 teams: Stanford (89-60) and Arizona State (77-55). UNLV only shot .379 against Stanford and .365 against ASU, down from their season average of .450 (122nd in the nation). Leading scorer, freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, was held in check against both Pac-12 squads, managing only seven points, three rebounds, and one assist against Stanford and only 10 points, three rebounds, and no assists against ASU, well below his season average of 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. Utah will be the toughest Pac-12 foe UNLV will have faced yet and is a reunion of former Mountain West Conference rivals.
Delon is Wright On:
After a slow start to the season, including a game at San Diego State where he scored only seven points, Utah senior point guard Delon Wright is starting to live up to his preseason expectations. In what was essentially a road game at Kansas, Wright scored 23 points and managed five rebound, four steals, four assists, and a blocked shot. He recorded a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds to help lift Utah to their first win in Provo since 2005. Wright will need to continue his strong play for Utah to live up to their preseason expectation of finishing second in the Pac-12.
Runnin' Utes have Size Advantage:
Utah has the size advantage with players like Jakob Poeltl (7-0, 235), Dallin Bachynski (7-0, 265), and Jeremy Olsen (6-10, 240). UNLV's tallest player Christian Wood at 6-11, 220. He struggled against an ASU team with a large big man in 6-10, 255 Eric Jacobsen. UNLV also struggled against a Portland squad who had a significant size advantage, and none of Portland's big men are as talented as Poeltl. Utah has the slight edge in rebounding on the season, averaging 38.1 rebounds per game, compared to 38.0 for UNLV. Players like Poeltl will need to have a big game and get rolling early to silence the home crowd at the MGM Grand. The Utes should be familiar enough with the arena, as the Pac-12 Tournament is played at the MGM Grand.
The Runnin' Utes will need to get things done without talented junior forward Jordan Loveridge, as he is still out with a knee injury. Loveridge played in Utah's first four games, averaging 11.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in only 24.0 minutes per game. Loveridge's threat as a shooter from outside is missed since teams can guard the lane to try to prevent Wright from driving. Having Loveridge to kick out to would open up things from Wright and Poeltl down low. Krystkowiak suspects Loveridge may have played through his knee injury for a while and hopes that getting it corrected will make him a better basketball player.
"Hopefully [the injury is] a blessing in disguise, obviously get rid of some of the loose bodies and some of the big chunks that were impeding his range of motion. Now he's working on it really hard. Every time I see him, he's in the midst of something," said Krystkowiak.
Both teams play solid defense, so fans of high scoring basketball games may be disappointed. The Runnin' Utes allow 58.0 points per game (36th in the nation) while the Rebels allow 64.2 points per game (tied for 140th). Both teams are elite at blocking shots, with UNLV averaging 7.9 blocks per game (3rd) and Utah averaging 6.4 blocks per game (13th). Opponents struggle to make baskets against both teams, with Utah holding opponents to a field goal percentage of 36.3 (19th). UNLV holds opponents to 36.6% shooting (23rd).
New Look Ute Starting Line Up:
When Wright left the game for a mere 1:09 against Kansas, the Jayhawks extended their one-point lead to eight. Wright did not leave the game again. Being able to give the star guard a breather to keep him fresh down the stretch is necessary. To help prevent things from going awry when Wright leaves the game, Krystkowiak is going to experiment with a different starting line up and decrease the amount of youth that is on the court at a given time. No one will be benched though.
"Obviously some of the rotations, the guys [are] coming in, it's not like anybody's been downgraded or exiled here," said Krystkowiak. "We're in the midst of looking at a lot of numbers and game tape trying to eliminate some of those runs."