The season has started out well for the Runnin' Utes (9-2). They are ranked as high as No. 8 (CBS Sports Top 25), No. 10 in the AP Poll, and have wins against Wichita State and UNLV. What would we like to see in the New Year for the Runnin' Utes basketball team?
Return of Jordan Loveridge:
Due to minor knee surgery, junior forward Loveridge has not played since Nov. 26 against Texas-Pan American. The Runnin' Utes have lost two games this season, one to No. 25 San Diego State, one to No 13/14 Kansas, both without JLove. While Loveridge is not the best player on the team, he has a good outside shot an can help take pressure off guard Delon Wright and center Jakob Poeltl by forcing players to defend him on the outside, creating space inside for Wright and Poeltl. In the four games he has played, Loveridge has averaged 11.5 points per game (second on the team). Having Loveridge back for Pac-12 play will be key for Utah to compete for a conference title, which, at this point, looks to be there for the taking.
Continued Rise of Freshman Brekkott Chapman:
Utah has been starting 6-foot-7 JUCO transfer Chris Reyes at forward over true freshman Brekkott Chapman (6-8), the highly recruited forward out of Roy High School. Chapman made a strong case to be a starter after leading all scorers with 22 points against South Dakota State on Tuesday. The size and athleticism Chapman brings is something that Reyes just cannot quite offer. Getting Chapman inserted into the starting lineup is key to help him continue to develop, which will be important for Utah during Pac-12 play and the NCAA Tournament.
Someone to Help Delon:
When Wright came out against Kansas before halftime, things fell apart as Kansas went on a run. Wright did not get a break in the second half of that game. Wright needs to be able to get some rest during games, so he's fresh down the stretch. Utah has had trouble closing out games the last two seasons, especially on the road. Who can step up to give Wright a break during the game? Freshman point guard Isaiah Wright was getting rave reviews before the season and seems to be getting more and more playing time, but he has not scored more than six points or recorded more than three assists, or one steal.
Wright gets it done at both ends of the court, scoring on offense and getting stops (steals or blocks) on defense, and is second on the team in rebounds. No one player can replace all of what Wright does, but finding someone who can step in and keep things running smoothly to give Wright a few minutes of rest at times against tough competition is critical for Utah to be able to pull out tough wins down the stretch against teams like Arizona and Washington.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak calls free throws your "daily vitamins," meaning the teams shoots them every day to try to improve. Poeltl's struggles from the line are well documented (43.4 percent), but the team is shooting just 66.3 percent, which ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-12. Games against teams like Washington, Arizona, Cal, Oregon, and Stanford could come down to the waning minutes of the game, where free throws are critical. Utah must shoot a decent percentage from the stripe in conference play if they want to win their first Pac-12 title in a men's sport. Perhaps a double dose of the daily vitamins?
Better Shooting From Downtown:
While the Runnin' Utes have not been terrible from downtown, they rank 62nd in the country in three-point field goal percentage at 37.8 percent. Having a more consistent outside shot would open up the lane for Wright to drive and Poeltl to work down low in the post. Guards Kenneth Ogbe and Dakari Tucker have shown flashes of greatness shooting from outside at times this season, but they have also passed on open looks from deep or have had games where they have been cold. Maybe the return of Loveridge will provide a more consistent outside shot? Whoever it may be that steps up, Utah needs someone who can stretch the defense consistently. Keep your eye on Tucker who hasn't lit up any games so far but tends to hit big shots at the most important times.