Now that football has concluded, we return you to your regularly scheduled basketball program. And next on the schedule for the No. 8-ranked Runnin' Utes are the Sun Devils of Arizona State Thursday night at 8 p.m. MT on Fox Sports 1. At this point in the conference schedule, this game is a matchup of first and worst, as Utah (13-2, 3-0) sits atop the Pac-12 standings, while ASU (8-8, 0-3) is all the way at the bottom.
"We're just looking at a bunch of film to get ready for ASU," Krystkowiak said at his Monday press conference. "Once you start thinking about how people perceive you, you're in trouble. We have to control the controllable. The rankings right now are irrelevant. We are not going to be sneaking up on teams. We are going to get every team's best punch. If we control what we can control, we will be fine."
Because this is a road game at a difficult venue, one would expect the Utes would have no problem focusing on their first conference road game. However, with No. 10 Arizona looming in Tucson, it would be natural for the Utes players to get caught peeking ahead to Saturday's showdown. That's just not going to happen, says Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak.
"There's no focus on Saturday," Krystkowiak said. "I know what they did to us last year, but we haven't accomplished anything. I am focused on ASU and this road trip's first game. They're dangerous and we are going to have to be focused on them."
So, fine, let's focus on ASU. While the Sun Devils are clearly reeling from three straight conference losses, all have come on the road. (Conversely, all of Utah's wins have come at home in the Jon M. Huntsman Center. Against quality competition, on the road, the Utes have been less successful, 1-2 on the season.) At home, ASU has just one loss this season, a triple overtime battle with Lehigh. That loss might not be a good one, but they also blew out UNLV by 22 in Tempe (77-55), so the Utes might want to look in the rear view mirror to really understand their opponents. It wasn't too long ago that Utah was dangerous to anyone who came into the Huntsman Center (yet could still lose a head scratcher - Sacramento State), but played opossum on the road. That is Arizona State, and the Utes had better respect their competition or might find themselves heading into Tucson with a loss.
Arizona State is somewhat offensively challenged this season. In three conference games so far, the Sun Devils have been held to 50.7 points per game, and Oregon State, who just took down Arizona in Corvallis, held the sons of Sparky to just 47 points, their lowest output of the season. The loss of Jahii Carson and Jordan Bachynski has hurt the Devils more than head coach Herb Sendek might want to admit.
Last season, Carson lit up the Utes for 23 points and eight rebounds. Dallin Bachynski's older (and taller) brother put up 11 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocked shots. That's 34 points and nearly 20 rebounds missing from Thursday's game for the home team.
However, 6-5 forward Shaquielle McKissic returns for the maroon and gold. McKissic tallied 11 points in last year's tilt on 3-for-4 shooting (4-for-4 from the free throw line). The senior from Seattle is the Sun Devils leading scorer this season at 11 points per game, shooting 47.2 percent from the field, as well as 37.5 percent from deep. McKissic's Achilles heel, like that of Utah center Jakob Poeltl, is the free throw line, where he averages just 59.2 percent accuracy. Nearly 40 percent of McKissic's attempts have come from beyond the 3-point line, as well as 31 percent of shots he's made. Shaq is a wing the Utes will want to force toward the basket into help, but not allow him to shoot spot-up 3s.
Replacing Bachynski in the post is 6-10, 255-pound Eric Jacobsen. The junior from Chandler, Ariz. is the team's fourth leading scorer (10.2 points per game) and leading rebounder (6.9 rebounds per game). Around the basket, Jacobsen is efficient, converting 66.3 percent of his attempts (leading the conference), although he only averages 5.4 attempts per game. This clash in the post between Jacobsen and Poeltl could be one of the best individual battles of the game. Depth might be the key for the Utes, as the Devils really have no one behind Jacobsen with the size or bulk to take on the Austrian 7-footer. If Jacobsen gets into foul trouble, Poeltl could have a career night.
Another returner the Utes need to watch for is sharp shooter Jonathan Gilling. The senior from Denmark averages just 7.5 points per game (fifth on the team), but shoots 50 percent from downtown, leading the Pac-12 in the category. Gilling was instrumental in turning the game around in Tempe last season, recording 11 points (on 5-for-5 from the field, 3-for-3 from 3-point territory), four rebounds, and five assists. Last season, Utah really didn't have anyone to match up with Gilling on the perimeter, but this year, freshmen Brekkot Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, as well as starter Chris Reyes, could give Gilling fits on both ends of the court. (Chapman, who gets more confident with each game, is averaging 52.6 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line, as well as 52.7 percent overall.)
Arizona State may not lose this game on shots they make or don't, but rather on shots they don't take. ASU is ninth in the league in turnover margin (-1.25) and 11th in assist to turnover ratio, which never bodes well for success. That may translate into the Sun Devils being eighth in the league in scoring offense at 69.2 points per game, with that average trending downward (as mentioned above) during league play. Add to the self-inflicted wounds that Utah leads the conference in rebounding margin (+9.0) and is fourth in steals (6.93 per game), and, if the Devils aren't careful with the ball Thursday night, the game could get out of hand rather quickly.
On the defensive end, the game couldn't be much more of a mismatch. Arizona State's seventh ranked scoring defense (63.0 points per game allowed) goes up against Utah's second ranked scoring offense (75.8 points per game scored) and league leading scoring margin (+20.7). ASU's 11th ranked field goal percentage defense (42.2 percent) goes up against Utah's No. 1 field goal percentage (50.1 percent). Arizona State's eighth ranked 3-point percentage defense (33.3 percent) takes on the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the conference, percentage-wise (39.7 percent).
So Utah should be able to exorcise some of the Devils of Tempe in this game, but they can't get caught looking toward Thursday. Arizona State has the athletes to push Utah in this one, even win the game if the Utes sleepwalk through it. But if the team is kept focused, as Krystkowiak has said they will be, this could be Utah's fourth Pac-12 blowout in as many games. That would be like a booming warning shot that will be heard loud and clear in Tucson.
Delon Wooden Watch:
The John R. Wood Award Watch List has been trimmed to a Top 25 names, as announced by the Los Angeles Athletic Club on ESPN's SportsCenter today. Among those names is one familiar to Runnin' Utes fans, senior guard Delon Wright. (The Utah point guard is one of three Pac-12 players named to the list, joined by Arizona's Stanley Johnson and Stanford's Chasson Randle.)
Wright currently leads the Utes in a number of categories, including scoring, assists, steals, and assist-to-turnover ratio. Along with field-goal percentage, Wright ranks among the top 10 players in the Pac-12 in all of those categories. His 2.4 steals per game ranks 15th nationally and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.3 is 18th in the land.
According to advanced stats, Wright currently owns a 128.2 offensive rating due to his accuracy from 2-point range (63%) and an assist rate of 37.4 percent that compared to a turnover rate of 14.7 percent.
ESPN.com has Wright listed as their third choice among their Top 5, still behind Frank Kaminski of Wisconsin and Jahil Okafor of Duke. With Duke losing their last two conference games, the last to Miami at home, Wright has a chance to move up the pecking order.
"Wright is not a particularly good 3-point shooter," says Eamonn Brennan, "which would normally be a major problem for a scoring point guard. But because Wright wisely eschews 3s -- he's taken just 28 all season -- and because he has enough midrange game to keep defenses guessing, he remains a major offensive weapon even without the most valuable shot in the game in his arsenal."
While Wright still leads the Utes in scoring at 14.9 points per game, it is true his 3-point shooting hasn't improved much this season. In the 2013-2014 season, Wright shot .222 from behind the 3-point arc. This season, he's shooting .286 (8-28). In fact, among all Utes shooters who have attempted more than three 3-pointers, Wright ranks dead last. Other than Wright, the lowest 3-point shooting percentage is, believe it or not, Downtown Dakarai Tucker (.340). If Wright can improve his accuracy from deep, he might be able to overtake the bigs for the Wooden Award.
Heading into this weekend's pair of road contests against Arizona State and No. 10 Arizona, Wright is averaging 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.3 steals per game away from home.