Tonight at 7:30 p.m. MT, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak brings in Carroll College from his home state of Montana as the sacrificial appetizer prior to the Runnin' Utes main feast, Pac-12 conference play, beginning Friday against USC. But after seeing UNLV ambush league favorite Arizona and Stony Brook knock off previously unbeaten Washington, the Utes don't want to get complacent.
The Fighting Saints (10-3), who compete in the NAIA, have played two other D-I opponents, losing to Purdue 90-49 on Nov. 11 and Montana 75-53 on Nov. 26. Sophomore Zach Taylor leads Carroll College in scoring at 18.2 points per game, so the Utes will concentrate on limiting the 6-foot guard's open looks. However, Utah will need to play honest defense on Taylor, because they don't want to send the Washington native to the line where he averages 86.2 percent free throw shooting.
"Everytime he steps on the court, it's a double-double watch," said Carroll head coach Dr. Carson Cunningham.
Carroll forward Oliver Carr is another to watch. The 6-6 freshman forward is second on the team in scoring at 15.8 points per game.
"Oliver Carr is a Renaissance man, a great student, musician, and hooper," said Cunningham. "He's quick and strong on the block and can stretch the opposition with his evolving outside game."
Fellow freshman and 6-6 forward Ryan Imhoff has recently returned from illness but scored 15 points in their win over D-II No.19 Arizona Christian.
Coach K's Utes were voted four spots higher in this week's AP Poll and check in at No. 10 in the country, the team's highest ranking since finishing the 1998-1999 season at No. 6.
As with many of the Utes opponents this season, Utah will have a decided height advantage in tonight's game. Carroll College has two players at 6-foot-8, senior center Logan Franco da Silveira and freshman Patrick Colberg, but no one taller, meaning Austrian 7-footer Jakob Poeltl should have a field day. That is, if Utah's guards can (or will) pass him the ball in the post, something they've seemed reluctant or unable to do on a consistent basis.
Poeltl is averaging 10.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, but it may be his defensive presence that leaves a lasting mark on the Utes' record books. The big Austrian has 28 blocks on the season, just 16 shy of the freshman record of 44 held by consensus All American and current Golden State Warrior Andrew Bogut. If Poeltl were to average just his 2.55 per game for the next 19 games of the regular season, he'd finish with roughly 78 placing him fourth on the Utes single-season blocks list. (Former center David Foster holds the season record at 115.)
And, naturally, the Saints will have their hands full with Wooden Award, Lute Olsen Award, and Cousey Award candidate, Delon Wright. In the friendly confines of the Jon M. Huntsman Center, the senior is averaging 16.4 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 71 percent from the field (64 percent on 3-pointers).
The Runnin' Utes are 7-0 at home this season and have won 26 straight at home against unranked opponents by an average of 24 points.
Utah currently sits 15th nationally in scoring margin at +17.6 and is shooting 49.3 percent from the field (21st in the nation) and 37.8 from 3-point range (second in the Pac-12).
But, as with all great teams, there has to be a chink in the armor, an Achilles heel. At Monday's coach's show, starting point guard Brandon Taylor was asked what he thinks Utah needs to improve heading into conference play. Taylor pointed out the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Utah's free throw shooting. As a team, the Runnin' Utes shoot just 66.3 percent from the charity stripe, even while Wright, Taylor, freshman Brekkott Chapman, and Jordan Loveridge are shooting above 70 percent. Poeltl is the obvious choice for drastic improvement, as the freshman is shooting just 43.4 percent from the line, even while averaging 4.8 attempts per game.
It will be interesting to see who starts at the power forward spot after Chapman went off for 22 points in Utah's 80-66 win over South Dakota State. Chapman is living up to the expectations many had of him being an impact player as a freshman, and he has been steadily improving and is always under the boards. Many of the Roy, Utah native's points come on offensive rebound put-backs. The lefty gets off the floor surprisingly quickly for a 6-8 forward and has a good mid-range and 3-point shot. In transition, Chapman gives Wright a sizable, quick target and finishes at the rim. Against the smaller Fighting Saints, Chapman could have another career high, especially if Wright is feeding him the ball as he was against the Jackrabbits.
Krystkowiak also said that Loveridge, Utah's second leading scorer at 11.5 points per game, has begun practicing with the team again. It will be interesting to see if he hits the floor tonight as a tuneup or they hold him until Friday against USC. The Runnin' Utes can use the upper classman's floor leadership as well as outside shooting, stretching the defense and opening the middle for Wright and Poeltl.