Tonight at 9 pm MT in the Jon M. Huntsman Center, the Runnin' Utes get their first home test of the season, as they welcome the No. 8 Shockers of Wichita State. Utah welcomes the first Top 10 non-conference team up to The Hill since 2002, when Rick Majerus' Utes knocked off No. 1 Alabama 51-49.
The Utes are undefeated at home at 5-0, but the Shockers present an entirely different test than Alabama State or North Dakota. Only San Diego State, Utah's only loss on the season, compares with the challenge that Wichita State brings to the Huntsman Center floor. The Shockers, winners of 35 consecutive regular season games, have also captured 12 straight road games, the nation’s longest streak, and are 38-8 in hostile territory since the start of the 2010-11 season. So it goes without saying that the Utes have their work cut out for them. That success away from home is big reason why WSU sports a 125-24 overall record over the past five seasons. The Shockers' .839 winning percentage over that time period is the best in all of Division I college basketball.
Gregg Marshall, the reigning National Coach of the Year, is in his eighth season at WSU and is 178-71 (.715) with the Shockers. Under Marshall’s watch, the Shockers have won two of the last three Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles, with three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Wichita State is led by 6-4 junior guard Ron Baker, who may draw Utah's own star Delon Wright as his defender. This could be a critical matchup of All America candidates, and Wright didn't play well in his last Top 25 showdown. A good showing against the Shockers will go a long way toward Wright's aspirations of post-season awards. Baker averages 18.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 47.1% from the field (46.2% from three-point range) and 82.4% from the free throw line. Utah will need to run Baker off the three-point line, making him put the ball on the floor, while also limiting his trips to the free throw line.
Utah will have a decided size advantage in the paint, with Austrian 7-footer Jakob Poeltl (who, by his own admission, is closer to 7-1) and Canadian 7-footer Dallin Bachynski being taller than any player on the Wichita State roster. On the season, Poeltl is averaging nearly a double-double at 12 pts and 9.3 rebounds, as well as blocking three shots a game (tied for 19th nationally). The big Austrian is also fifth nationally in field goal percentage, scoring on 75% of his shots. But Utah has had difficulty feeding the post, and that will have to get better quickly in order for the Utes really take advantage of their bigs. Wichita State starts no player taller than 6-7, so if they go with a big (either 6-10 freshman center Rauno Nurger or 6-11 junior center Tom Wamukota), they'll have to pull one of their top scorers and rebounders off the floor, as neither center averages more than three points or three rebounders.
Despite their lack of elite size, the Shockers have out-rebounded all four opponents this year. Wichita State ranks 14th nationally in rebounding margin at +12.3 per game. (Utah comes in slightly lower at +11.5 per game.)
If the game comes down to the final minutes, the Utes will need to have done a lot of work in practice at the free throw line. Utah averages 68.5% free throw shooting as a team, with Poeltl shooting an abysmal 50% from the stripe. However, Utah's team percentage at the line is actually better than the No. 8 Shockers, who shoot just 64.6%. One WSU starter, leading rebounder Tekele Cotton (5.3 rebounds per game), shoots just 42.9% from the charity stripe.
For the Utes, the availability of junior forward Jordan Loveridge might be key. If Loveridge can go tonight, Utah will matchup very well against the long, quick Shockers. If not, sophomore swingman Kenneth Ogbe, fresh off a career-high 19-point putting against Alabama State, will be called upon to fill the void, along with 6-9 freshman forward Kyle Kuzma. However, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak might choose to go smaller and quicker to matchup with WSU point guard Fred Van Vleet, a 6-footer, who averages 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and five assists per game. In that case, Coach K might elect to start junior guard Brandon Taylor. Because Krystkowiak has shown a penchant for mutable starting lineups, who trots out onto the Huntsman Center floor tonight for the tipoff could be telling as far as the Utes strategy.
One wild card could be 6-5 guard/forward Dakari Tucker. The junior recently returned from injury and began lighting up the scoreboard from deep. Tucker averages nine points and 2.5 rebounds per game on 44.4% shooting from behind the arc. Tucker's production for the Utes off the bench could really impact this game.
Utah will be trying to snap a negative Top 25 streak tonight, as the Utes have lost 13-straight contests to teams ranked in the AP Top 10 (Arizona, 5; San Diego State, 3; Kentucky, 2; BYU, Oklahoma, UCONN, 1). If the Utes are going to be a legitimate player in the Pac-12, they need to signal it tonight with a victory over a highly regarded Wichita State team.
Striping the Huntsman:
Tonight is the basketball teams first attempt at striping the stadium. Fans are encouraged to wear red or white attire, depending on where their seats are located in the arena.
Color codes are listed below and can also be found on an interactive map found here http://www.utahutes.com/tickets/stripe-the-huntsman.html
Red Sections: B, D, F, G, H, K, M, P, R, T, V, X, Z
White Sections: A, C, E, J, L, N, Q, S, U, W, Y