Tonight, the Runnin' Utes welcome the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State into the Jon M. Huntsman Center for a 7 p.m. MT tipoff. Utah (8-2) will be glad to get back on the friendly home floor after a tough three-game road swing against the likes of BYU, Kansas, and UNLV.
The Jacks (seriously, that's what the school calls them) are 9-3 on the season and in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, including two in the recent World Vision Classic in Logan. South Dakota State beat Idaho State 75-72 in the opening round of the tournament, took out Bakersfield 53-49, and then knocked off the host Aggies in the Spectrum (never a small feat) 68-65. SDSU has also knocked off Saint Louis, a very strong mid-major program, on the road 62-55, so Utah can't afford to take this team lightly. However, the Jacks should be a bit road weary, as tonight's contest will be their eighth road game of the season, and the Utes are 6-0 at home, with an overtime win over No. 11 Wichita State.
SDSU runs a small three guard, two forward offense, starting 6-1 Deondre Parks, 6-4 Jake Bittle, and 6-1 George Marshall alongside forwards Cody Larsen (6-9) and Zach Horstman (6-6). The Jacks are led by junior guard Parks (14 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game). Senior forward Larsen (6-foot-9, 235) leads the team in rebounding at 7.2 per contest and is also the teams third leading scorer at 13.5 points. Marshall may draw Delon Wright, as he is the team's second leading scorer (13.7 points) and rebounder (5 per game). Junior guard Bittle is the fourth SDSU player averaging double figures in scoring at 10.7 points per contest and pulling down 4.3 rebounds.
Utah's Dakarai Tucker made his first start against UNLV and is averaging 7.8 points per game, shooting .379 from beyond the three-point line. Tucker will both force SDSU's guards to play out near the perimeter and be challenged by a taller defender.
The Jacks will have their hands full inside with Utah's twin towers of Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski, as South Dakota State has only one player on the roster over 6-9, sophomore forward Connor Devine (6-10), who only averages 3.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Poeltl has not had good outings for the last three games, much of that due to the level of competition and the defensive attention the young Austrian has received, but he still averages nearly a double-double at 10.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, along with 2.7 blocked shots. As a team, Utah averages one more rebound per game (38-37), and is second in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin at +8.3.
But SDSU's real problem will be Utah's defensive pressure. With Poeltl inside swatting shots and Wright and Brandon Taylor on the perimeter picking pockets, the Jacks will have to really concern themselves with solid passes and smart drives. If the Jacks allow Utah to turn up the defensive heat and let the Utes get running, they could leave Salt Lake City with a blowout loss.
Utah in the Polls:
Utah is ranked No. 14 in the country by both the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll (below). The Utes have ascended to No. 13 in the ESPN.com Power Rankings, as well. At 8-2 currently, the Utes can finish the non-conference portion of the season with 10 wins in this two-game home stretch, half way to that "magical" 20-win mark that is essential for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.
USA Today Coaches Poll
|23||San Diego State||8-3||97||17|
|Others Receiving Votes: Georgetown 40; California 35; TCU 29; Virginia Commonwealth 27; Minnesota 18; Miami (Fla.) 17; Michigan State 13; Arkansas 11; Seton Hall 9; Old Dominion 8; Oklahoma State 7; Indiana 7; Florida 6; LSU 5; Illinois 4; Butler 4; Penn State 3; Saint Mary's 1.|
Las season, Utah finished .500 in Pac-12 play (9-9) and will need to better that mark to both get into the tournament and earn a decent first-round seed. This season, the Pac-12 has Arizona at the top (ranked No. 3), Washington at 11-0 and ranked No. 13 after beating both San Diego State and Oklahoma, as well as California at 10-2. After that, the competition drops off considerably, and no one, even those in Los Angeles, are quite sure what UCLA is going to bring from game to game. But the conference will be competitive, and Utah needs to meet the expectation of being the second best team in the conference while pushing Arizona to the brink, but UW and Cal will have something to say about that.
Merry Christmas Utah:
Support the Runnin' Utes Toy Drive supporting Toys for Tots by bringing an unwrapped toy to the gates of the Huntsman Center to receive a free upper bowl ticket.