The Runnin' Utes left for Wichita on Thursday afternoon in preparation for their Saturday showdown with the Shockers of Wichita State. The Shockers will be looking for revenge, after the Utes pulled out a 69-68 overtime win at the Huntsman Center last year. Last season saw both teams ranked in the top-25 (Wichita State in the top 10) when they met. This season the hype is considerably less, as Wichita State is currently unranked with a 4-4 record. The Shockers are coming off an ugly, grind it out, 56-50 victory against UNLV on Wednesday night.
While Wichita State is off to a rocky 4-4 start, it is worth noting their best player and floor general, Fred Van Vleet has not been in the lineup for four of those games. Unsurprisingly, three of the team's four losses came with Van Vleet on the bench. The All-American has struggled through the first two weeks of the season with a hamstring injury and has not looked 100% healthy until Wednesday night, when he led the Shockers with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. A healthy Van Vleet is a difference maker on this Wichita State team, providing a leader who makes his teammates better and plays tenacious defense.
Senior guard Ron Baker is another reason Wichita State is a dangerous opponent for Utah. Baker is currently averaging 16.9 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game. The 6-4 220 lb. guard is a good shooter and leads the team in scoring while making solid decisions when the ball is in his hands. He has scored double digits in all but one game this season and has gone for over twenty points three times. He is shooting 36.5% from behind the arc and 73.2 % from the free throw line. Baker compliments Van Vleet well at the shooting guard position and the two of them together healthy, form a savvy veteran backcourt for the Shockers.
Wichita State is a little banged up with senior forward Anton Grady out with a back injury and guard Landry Shamet out until at least February. Kansas transfer and former highly coveted prospect, Conner Frankamp is now eligible for Wichita State and should provide another good shooter to compliment Baker. Frankamp didn't look good in his first game however, going 0-5 from the floor scoring just two points on free throws. He recorded only one assist, but did have two steals in just 14 minutes.
One area Utah should be able to exploit on Saturday is depth. Other than Baker and Van Vleet, the Shockers have yet to find a player that can be a consistent threat. Sophomore forward Zach Brown has put together a couple nice games recently (10 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists against Iowa) and freshman forward Markis McDuffie had a couple good games early (14 points, 7 rebounds against Alabama), but neither can be relied on for consistent production. Certainly neither one is a match for Jakob Poeltl in the post.
Utah holds an advantage in depth, talent and athleticism. If Utah gets the ball down low to Poeltl, Wichita State will have to double team him to have any chance of stopping him. At the wings, Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Loveridge have an advantage in size and athleticism. The only spot Wichita State might have an advantage at is guard, but Lorenzo Bonam has played well in his brief Utah career, coming off a 15 point, 4 assist,, 3 rebound, 3 steal effort against IPFW, and Brandon Taylor has the ability to light it up from long range if he can find his stroke.
If Wichita State wants to pull the upset, they will need to improve their shooting. The Shockers are only shooting 39% from the field and 29.6% from behind the arc. Utah in comparison is shooting 48% from the field and 33.7% from beyond the three point line. If the game comes down to free throws, Utah has Witchita State's number there too, shooting 72.4% to the Shockers 71.8%.
Wichita State plays good defense, but they have a whole lot of ground to make up in the scoring column. Utah is averaging 82 points per game to Wichita State's 68 points per game. On the boards Utah holds the advantage, averaging 39 rebounds per game to the Shockers 37 rebounds per game. Turnover wise the teams are even, both averaging 11 turnovers per game.
The game will be played in downtown Wichita in front of a sold out crowd, so the environment will be tough for the Utes and should provide the Shockers an advantage. Utah has yet to play a true road game this season, with the only games played away from the Huntsman Center being on a neutral court. Saturday's game will be a good test for the Utes to see how they handle a hostile road environment. Overall the Utes hold most of the advantages going into the game, but a healthy Fred Van Vleet and a raucous Wichita State crowd should provide the Utes with a solid challenge on Saturday afternoon.
The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 1:30 MT.