The stage is set for a top ten Pac-12 matchup between the no. 8 Runnin' Utes (14-2) and the no. 10 Arizona Wildcats (15-2) at the McKale Center in Tucson. The Utes meteoric rise will be put to the test, as Utah will take on perennial power and college basketball blue blood Arizona on it's home court. This is Utah's chance to announce themselves to the world.
The Utah players are well aware of the potential ramifications of this game with guard Brandon Taylor saying "It's a great opportunity that lies ahead of us."
Saturday afternoon's matchup marks the first time since 2008 that two Pac-12 teams ranked in the top ten will face off in a conference matchup. It's the first time since the 1998 title game against Kentucky that the Utes will be involved in a top ten tilt. The Utes come into this game on fire, having won twelve of their past thirteen games and six in a row. The Utes are 4-0 in Pac-12 play and have run roughshod over their opponents so far, winning by an average of 24.5 points against Pac-12 opponents. Delon Wright continues to be the Utes floor general, scoring at a clip of 15.3 points per game and averaging 5.7 assists. Jordan Loveridge has rebounded nicely from an early season knee injury to score in double figures in four of his first five games back. Jakob Poeltl continues his rise from an unknown overseas player into legitimate NBA prospect averaging nearly a double double.
Arizona comes into the game as a nationally recognized, final four caliber team, with a wealth of elite talent on it's roster. The Wildcats boast true freshman phenom Stanley Johnson, who has been a monster on the offensive end of the court, leading the Wildcats in scoring. Standing 6'7" and weighing 245 lbs. Johnson has averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. At forward, sophomore Rondae Hollis Jefferson averages 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and is a lockdown defender. At 6'7" and 220 lbs. he's another long athletic player for the Wildcats who will likely share the responsibility of guarding Delon Wright.
Early in the season this game appeared to be weighted substantially in Arizona's favor. The game is at the McKale center where the "Zona Zoo" likes to get rowdy and the Utes had lost an ugly game to San Diego State and a closely fought contest to Kansas, both on the road. Meanwhile Arizona was beating the likes of Gonzaga, Michigan and the very same San Diego State team the Utes lost to. Much has changed in the past few weeks however. Arizona's win over Michigan does not appear to be the feather it once was thought to be, Gonzaga controlled much of the game on the Arizona's home floor and the Wildcats stumbled against UNLV and more recently Oregon State. The Utes are playing their best ball of the season currently and Arizona appears to have chinks in the armor.
The Wildcats have had a tendency to start out slow this season.
"That initial surge out of the gates of playing well at both ends, I don't know if we've really done that" Arizona coach Sean Miller said after a slow start against Missouri.
Against San Diego State, the Wildcats didn't score a point until almost 3 minutes in. In their loss at Oregon State, Arizona managed only 21 points in the first half. The Wildcats were able to recover somewhat in the second half scoring 35, but leading scorer Stanley Johnson was never able to get on track scoring only 7 points total. In contrast, Arizona started slowly again on Thursday in their win over Colorado before closing out the half on a 10-3 run. The difference between the loss at Oregon State and the win against Colorado? Johnson set a career high with 22 points and 8 rebounds against the Buffs, redeeming himself from his 7 point performance in Corvallis.
The Utes have made a name for themselves as a suffocating defensive team this season. This could prove to be a big advantage against an Arizona team that sometimes struggle to score early. The Utes have struggled to find a rythym coming out of the gates at times this season as well. Fortunately the scheduling worked out well for the Utes. Coming off a 7 day break, the Utes were able to play a warm up game of sorts against a struggling Arizona State team on Thursday. Utah can't afford start out rusty against Arizona at the McKale center and expect to come out with a win.
"Everybody kind of knows that this one is a little bit different" coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
How Jakob Poeltl fares against Arizona's front line will factor heavily into the outcome of this game. In the Utes three games against the Wildcats last year, the Utes were outscored in the paint in two of the contests and out rebounded in all three by a margin of 11, 6 and 15 respectively. One of the key additions this offseason was Poeltl, who coach Krystkowiak hopes will shore up the disparity against the Wildcats. The fact that Poeltl is suiting up for the Utes instead of the Wildcats is a tribute to the Krystkowiak's recruiting ability. Arizona heavily recruited Poeltl in the off season but ultimately Poeltl's relationship with coach K swayed him to commit to Utah.
Poeltl will have his chance to show Sean Miller and the Wildcats what they missed out on, but it won't be easy. 6'9" 230 lb. junior forward Brandon Ashley and 7' 245 lb. Kaleb Tarczewski will give Poeltl all he can handle inside. Against Colorado on Thursday, Tarczewski had a big game having his way down low for 14 points. Last week against Oregon he recorded a double double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Ashley has been a stud for the Wildcats as well, scoring double figures in twelve games this season and pulling down a season high 11 rebounds against the Buffs on Thursday. In order to win, Poeltl will need to have success scoring against these two as well as receive help from Reyes and Chapman on the defensive end.
With the win against Arizona State on Thursday, the Utes are one step into the process of exorcising their conference road demons from a year ago. Last season the Utes struggled away from home in Pac-12 play going 2-7. It will be a tall order to keep it going, as Arizona carries a 31 game win streak at home, in addition to having won 10 in a row against the Utes. Utah will need to play suffocating defense on the perimeter and control the paint to get it done.
"Last year we didn't do a good job winning on the road" said Delon Wright. "So we're trying to have a new mentality this year."
This game is being anticipated by members of the national media and for many it will be the first time they are able to get a good look at how the Utes matchup with a high profile opponent. Pac-12 Networks expert Kevin O'Neill (former coach at USC from 2009-2013 and former Arizona assistant) is bullish on Arizona.
"Arizona's going to win." said O'Neill. "They're in McKale, they have the best talent. They've got the deepest team. They're committed to defense. Utah is going to play a great game and they are going to lose."
O'Neill also cited Arizona's superior talent to Utah as a reason he was picking Arizona to win. Arizona has as many potential NBA players on it's roster as any other team in the country, while Utah's only real legitimate NBA prospects currently are Wright and Poeltl.
O'Neill's counterpart Lamar Hurd likes Utah however, pointing out that Utah is playing better together as a team right now. He also identifies Delon Wright as an x-factor in this game saying "I think Delon Wright is going to show up big and play an All-American type game."
No matter which side of the fence you're on, everyone agrees this game is going to be a dogfight. The Utah program has come lightyears since the 6-25 record four seasons ago. Momentum is building within the program. The opportunity for national respect is there for the taking. Utah will have the country's attention against Arizona this afternoon. There is only one thing left to do.
Just win baby.