For the third straight game in Pac-12 play, the No. 9-ranked Runnin' Utes ran a conference opponent out of the Jon M. Huntsman Center, beating Colorado 74-49. After Xavier Johnson went down with what may be a high ankle sprain, Colorado was undermanned and just unable to keep up with the scrappy, dogged, talented Utes.
Part of that might have been the fault of the Buffaloes starting point guard Askia Booker. Early in the second half, Booker, allegedly, ran by Utah's bench and yelled at Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak, "You can't guard me!" As one might imagine, that didn't go over well with the no-nonsense coach. That was when the game was still in doubt, with the Utes up nine at 36-27.
That would be the last time Booker would score until his team was down by 35 points, as Utah ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Utah often doubled Booker on the perimeter on the high pick and rolls, and even when he found daylight, Utah guard Brandon Taylor was quickly on him tighter than his own jersey. Colorado's leading scorer was held to 10 points when the game was still within reach. Once Utah had blown the game open, his final two points didn't matter. The talkative point guard finished the game with 12 points, six rebounds, just one assist and four turnovers.
"We got in the passing lanes," senior point guard Delon Wright said. "We made smart decisions on offense."
Utah's interior defense was just as stout, holding second leading scorer and leading rebounder Josh Scott to a paltry three points and two rebounds (none on the offensive end). In fact, Scott's points all came from the line (3-for-4), as he went 0-for-3 from the field. (In fairness, Scott was playing with back spasms and wasn't 100 percent for the game, although he made no excuses in the post-game interviews.)
For Utah, it was an offensive explosion. Three Utes scored in double figures, led by junior guard Taylor's game-high 14 points. Taylor shot 4-f-8 from the field, 2-of-3 from deep, and nailed a perfect 4-of-4 from the free throw line. He also registered four rebounds and five assists. Senior guard Delon Wright had 13 points, as well as game highs in assists (six) and steals (four). Wing Dakarai Tucker came in off the bench to pump in 2-of-5 from long distance, finishing with 11 points and four rebounds.
"Utah is a good team, but 41 of their points came off of Colorado second-chance points (13) and turnovers," said Colorado head coach Tad Boyle. "That's on us. Those 41 are on us, because we don't take care of the ball, and we don't box out and rebound as good as we need to."
As he often does, Wright provided the highlight of the night. In the second half, working from the left elbow, Wright split the double on the pick and roll with Poeltl and headed toward the basket. With no one in his way, Wright elevated for the dunk and brought the Huntsman Center home crowd (announced at 13,876) to their feet.
Freshman reserve forwards Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma found the bucket, as well. Chapman contributed eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, 2-of-3 from downtown, and Kuzma electrified the crowd with two big three-pointers to really put the game out of reach for the visiting Buffaloes.
Utah shot 9-for-22 from from behind the three-point arc (40.9 percent), including 7-for-14 in the second half. Three consecutive triples by Taylor, Tucker, and, surprisingly Chris Reyes, ignited a 19-4 run that was all but the end of the game.
"[They were] kind of daggers to our defense," said Scott. "You get plays like that ,and they get the crowd into the game. It's really tough."
Colorado, previously undefeated in conference play after soundly beating the Southern California schools, drops to 9-6 overall, 2-1 in Pac-12 play.
No. 9 Utah continues their torrid conference run, closing out the opening home stand undefeated. The Runnin' Utes improve to 13-2, 3-0 in conference, and 11-0 at home. Utah stands atop the Pac-12 leaderboard for the first time since the school joined the Conference of Champions.
Up next is a trip down to the desert to take on Arizona State (8-6, 0-1) in Tempe on Jan. 15. Utah then travels to face perhaps its toughest opponent of the season, No. 7 Arizona (13-1, 1-0) in Tucson on Jan. 17.
In short, don't trash talk Larry Krystkowiak. When he has a team as talented and cohesive as this one, it's a recipe for disaster. I still expect Askia Booker to thump his chest when Utah travels across the Rockies to Boulder, but Boyle might just discourage inciting the Utes. In any case, the battle between Booker and Taylor in Colorado might just be epic in the second half of the conference season.
Jakob Poeltl must challenge the league's post players. Twice last night, Poeltl got the ball deep in the paint and either fell away from Josh Scott or tried to shoot around him. Both times, he got his shot easily blocked by the shorter Scott. Instead, Poeltl needs to go right up Scott's chest and challenge him. He needs to go right at the rim, instead of trying to find creative ways of getting the ball in the basket. Creating space by falling away or going around the defender only gives the defensive man what he needs to block it, it also somewhat negates Poeltl's size advantage. By challenging league defenders and going right at them, he'll either score or get fouled. Yes, there's a chance he'll generate an offensive foul, which is going to get called on the road, but he sends a message to the defender he's going to be physical in the paint. Some post defenders get tired of getting banged around, and they become the ones who shy away from contact as the game wears on.
Brandon Taylor has given up size to just about every opposing guard he's faced this season. Even the simply 6-footers are taller than Taylor, but he's still their worst nightmare. He's like that hornet that buzzes around your face. You don't dare swat it. You can't just let it continue to bother you, but if you do nothing and play try to your usual game, you'll eventually get stung, and Taylor's off to the races. Taylor has recorded 20 steals on the season, second only to Wright's 36 thefts, but even when he isn't stealing the ball, he's making dribbling and shooting uncomfortable for opposing guards. It's no wonder the junior from California got swatted on a break-away last night, Colorado's guard were tired of the buzzing.
Colorado's leading scorer, Booker was constantly ball faking on the perimeter and then jumping into defenders who'd left their feet. On one such play, Booker leaped to his right, not upward, into Taylor. That's an offensive foul and should be something league referees keep an eye on, considering it seems to be such a big part of his game. Without six free throws from such plays, Booker might have scored in the low single digits.
National media outlets are recognizing the game of Delon Wright. To them, the star guard doesn't need to score 20 points per game to be elite. Yahoo! Sports' Brad Evans had this to say:
Completely agree with @franfraschilla, Utah's Delon Wright is the best all-around PG in the country. Long, smooth, does everything well.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) January 8, 2015