Two games down, sixteen more to go. The Utes moved to 2-0 in Pac-12 play and up to No. 9 in the Associated Press Poll after soundly defeating both USC and UCLA last week. The No. 9 ranking is the highest the Utes have been ranked since 1999 when they were ranked sixth to close the season. The Utes will continue Pac-12 play on Wednesday at 7 p.m. MT against the Colorado Buffaloes at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
"[The ranking] feels good, and we don't talk about it," Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "We had a little breakdown and debrief of what we need to do moving forward. Winning is fun, it's not as grinding as past years. We fix what's broken and try and repeat what you're doing well. You're only as good as the next game. Behind the scenes here, we don't really care about it too much. Another time of year, near the end, that number would mean more but it's an indication of moving forward."
The Buffs come into the Huntsman Center with an 9-5 record, 2-0 in Pac-12 play. Tad Boyle is in fifth year as head coach at Colorado and has won 20-plus games in each of his first four seasons in Boulder. This year's team has struggled a bit to find an identity, which has resulted in inconsistent play. While the Buffs have a respectable record, they have had some puzzling performances for a team expected to finish near the top of the Pac-12. (They finished just one point behind the Utes in preseason voting). Wyoming, who the Utes thrashed in a preseason scrimmage, thumped the Buffs by a score of 56-33, and the Buffs struggled recently, as they dropped a Christmas Day game to Hawaii. However, the Buffs were able to redeem themselves last weekend, as they mirrored the Utes in beating both the Southern California schools at home.
The Buffs are expecting a raucous Huntsman Center crowd. They know they have to take the home fans out of the game early to get a win in Salt Lake City.
"[The road] is a different environment," said 6-9 forward Tory Miller. "It's one thing to hear the crowd screaming for you. It's another to make a crowd quiet. That's always a good feeling. Everything is going crazy, then you hear the silence. Yeah, I actually like that a lot more."
The fact Colorado was able to pick up both Pac-12 wins without their best player might be a sign the Buffs are starting to get things on track. Junior forward Josh Scott (6-10, 240 pounds) has sat out the last two games with back spasms and is listed as day-to-day. Scott is averaging 14.8 points per game (second on the team) and 7.7 rebounds (leading the team) and is excellent at the free throw line for a big man (81.5 percent).
"We have no choice but to prepare like he's playing," Krystkowiak said. "He's one of the best big men in the conference. This is a guard-dominant league. These three teams, UCLA, USC and Colorado, along with our team, we all have guards leading our team in scoring. They won't let the cat out of the bag, and he's a really good player, so we'll prepare for him."
In Scott's absence, guard Askia Booker has stepped up to lead the charge for the Buffs. Booker, a senior, played possibly his best game of the season against UCLA, scoring 20 points, with four rebounds, two assists, three steals, and one blocked shot. On top of that line, he shot 4-for-6 from beyond the three-point arc against the Bruins. Booker followed up with 18 points, four rebounds, and matched his season high assist total with seven against USC. Forwards Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon have made their presence know down low with Scott out. Gordon, a sophomore, scored 11 points, pulled down 14 rebounds, and blocked seven shots against the Bruins, while junior forward Xavier Johnson went for 17 points and 5 rebounds on 7-for-10 shooting in the win against USC.
While Scott's status for Wednesday night's game is still in question, the Buffs have proven they have the talent to win Pac-12 games without him. How they would fare against the Utes without Scott, however, is an interesting question. In the first 12 games of the season, Boyle mostly relied on his "big three" of Booker, Scott, and Johnson to win games. However, with Scott out, Boyle has had to change his scheme the past two games.The Buffs are a much smaller team without Scott on the floor, which has meant substituting more often, spreading the floor and taking advantage of fast breaks. The Utes meanwhile have earned a reputation this season for a stifling defense, especially on the perimeter, holding opponents to only 30.8 percent from deep. This would seem to be a good matchup for the Utes if Colorado is forced to play in that syle. Furthermore, Jakob Poeltl has emerged as a premier big man, and with no Scott in the Buffs lineup, they would struggle to find a good matchup for the 7-foot freshman. Johnson, while a talented player, is only 6-7 and might struggle with Utah's length inside.
If Scott is able to play, his matchup with Poeltl will be critical to each teams success. While Poeltl has a slight size advantage, Scott is the more experienced and polished player of the two. Scott is also capable of pulling Poeltl away from the basket, having legitimate three-point range if the big Austrian sags into the lane. That gives Johnson and Gordon the freedom to work underneath against the Utes' forwards.
Another matchup to watch will be the point guards, Booker against Delon Wright. Booker can score with the best guards out there; however, his distribution skills have been questioned at times. Wright does a better job seeing the floor and getting teammates involved. If the games comes down to a final shot, you can bet either Booker or Wright will be the ones taking it.
Another advantage for the Utes in this matchup with Colorado is scoring efficiency. The Utes currently rank sixth in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting over 50 percent and average 75.9 points per game. Colorado, meanwhile, has struggled with their shooting at times this season and ranks 90th in the nation in field goal percentage at 45.5 percent and 152nd in points per game at only 69.1. The Utes also hold a significant statistical advantage in rebounds and assists per game, ranking 61st and 66th respectively while Colorado ranks 94th in rebounds per game and 208th in assists per game.
From a talent standpoint, the Utes and Buffaloes are about even. Both the Utes and Buffaloes have elite scoring guards in Wright and Booker, talented big men in Poeltl and Scott, and do it all forwards with Jordan Loveridge and Johnson. The difference between the two thus far is the Utes have been able to put it all together for dominating performances, winning their last five games by double digits. For Colorado, the road has been a little rough early, but they look to be hitting their stride as conference play begins. Don't sleep on Colorado, as they have the talent beat anybody in the conference. The uncertainty of Scott for this game is of concern for Buffs fans, and even if he is able to play, he may not be 100 percent.
Krystkowiak's Utes are on to something special this year, and it would take a gutsy performance by the Buffs to come into the Huntsman center and pull out a win. In this game, the Utes continue their winning ways and beat Colorado in a hard fought game.
"It's fun to be a part of," Krystkowiak said about the Huntsman Center game atmosphere. "I don’t want to sound corny but at Montana, we had a great home court. That’s what I miss the most and have the fondest memories of, game day and my teammates. Knowing those people were going to be behind you. Then you walk out Friday night here and the place is packed without the students back in school. I’m happy for our kids to get to experience something like that. The impact they have, the crowd, other teams notice it. The passion of our fans is very intense. They come up and talk to us and tell us about how they think we’re doing. Right now, it's an exciting time."