The non-conference season is over for the Runnin’ Utes, ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll, and it has been a successful start to the season by all accounts. The men’s basketball team enters Pac-12 play with a Top 10 ranking and a 10-2 record, with their only losses on the road to San Diego State and Kansas. Utah will look to build on their non-conference start tonight as they open conference play against the USC Trojans (8-4) at the Huntsman Center.
The Trojans are led by coach Andy Enfield who is in his second season as the head basketball coach at USC. Many remember Enfield for leading Florida-Gulf Coast to the sweet sixteen in the 2013 NCAA tournament. A high-scoring offense with an array of high flying dunks earned FGCU the nickname "Dunk City." However, Enfield has struggled to carry his 2013 success at FCGU with him to USC. In Enfield’s first season leading the Trojans, the team finished 11-21 overall and just 2-16 in Pac-12 play, good for a last place finish. This season, the Trojans have shown marked improvement, as they enter conference play just three victories shy of last season’s win total.
On the court, the Trojans are exceedingly young. Enfield’s rotation is usually nine players deep, eight of which are freshman and sophomores. The only upper classman to see meaningful minutes is 6-9 junior forward Strahinja Gavrilovic, averaging 6.7 points per game and 3.6 rebounds. Offensively, the team is led by freshman guard Jordan McLaughlin averaging 13.3 points per game and 5.2 assists. McLaughlin started his college career hot out of the gate, scoring 19 points to go with six assists in his very first collegiate game against Portland State University. He has continued to have the hot hand, scoring double figures in eight games. Opposite McLaughlin at the other guard position is 6-6 sophomore Katin Reinhardt, averaging 10.8 points per game to go with 2.3 assists. Reinhardt, who played at California superpower Mater Dei High School and , transferred to USC from UNLV. Reinhardt provides a bit more size than McLaughlin and can punish opposing teams by getting to the foul line where he shoots 79.4%. Down low, 6-11 sophomore forward Nikola Jovanovic averages 11.8 points per game and 8.6 rebounds. Jovanovic has four double-doubles to show for the year, finishing one rebound short of a fifth double double against Akron. The trio have combined to lead a bit of a rejuvenation for a program that has fallen on hard times the past few years in the wake of the O.J. Mayo scandal.
The Runnin Utes will host the Trojans in the familiar confines of the Huntsman Center, where they will try to kick off Pac-12 play 1-0 and run their home record to 9-0 this season. The Trojans have only played on the road twice this year, winning against New Mexico in ‘The Pit’ and taking down Boston College in Boston. The Utes should prove a stiffer test than the aforementioned schools and will provide a good guage as to where this young Trojans team stands against the rest of the conference.
Jordan Loveridge will be playing in his second game back from injury and will look to build on his 14-point, 3-rebound game against Carroll College. Loveridge is going to be key for the Utes to have success moving forward through the conference slate and having a good game against the Trojans would be an excellent start to the conference season.
While the Trojans have a promising group of young players, the difference between these two teams is stark. The Utes rank ninth in the nation in field goal percentage at .506 and 39th in the country in points per game with 76.1. In contrast, the Trojans have struggled at the offensive end, ranking in at 234th in field goal percentage at .424 and 177th overall in points per game at 68.2.
Where the Trojans could find success this game is in the paint. The Trojans are a slightly better rebounding team, averaging 39.3 per game as compared to the Utes 37.9. While the difference in number is negligible, if the Trojans can get Jakob Poeltl in foul trouble early, Jovanovic and forward Darion Clark could make life difficult for the Utes underneath the basket. With Poeltl out of the game, the Trojans would have a significant athletic advantage with Jovanovic and Clark against Dallin Bachynski and Chris Reyes. That’s not to say the guard play of Delon Wright combined with Loveridge’s return wouldn’t carry the Utes, but if the Trojans are looking for an upper hand, getting Poeltl on the bench would be a good place to start.
Utah has done a very good job dictating the tempo of each non-conference game. Just as fans saw with the BYU game, that ability to control the game will be important against a USC team that wants to push the tempo at all times. On made baskets, the Trojans get the ball up the court as fast as an NBA team, frequently throwing the ball ahead to their bigs running the floor. If the Utes can get back in transition, especially Poeltl, and the forwards (Reyes, Brekkott Chapman, and Loveridge) and limit the USC fast-break opportunities, Utah will notch another home win. If the Runnin' Utes fall asleep after their possessions, Utah could suffer the kind of head scratching loss that plagued Arizona and Washington recently.
On paper, the Utes should win this game fairly handily. It’s the Pac-12 opener. It's being played in the Jon M. Huntsman Center, and the Utes will have all their weapons at their disposal. The Trojans have a nice nucleus of young talented players, but are still learning to play together and don’t have the experience this Utah team does. Trojans coach Andy Enfield seems to have his team heading in the right direction, but they are a year or two behind the Utes in the rebuilding process. The Trojans have the talent to make this game interesting, and even win it if Utah doesn’t come out ready to play. That shouldn't be the case however, especially at home in the first conference game of the season. Coach Krystkowiak has proven he knows how to get the most out of this group and they should be ready go tonight.
The Trojans storm the Huntsman Center gates at 8 pm MT. You can catch all the action on ESPNU.