The 10-2 Utes have nearly completed their non-conference schedule with the formality that is College of Idaho yet to be played, and we've already learned a great deal about this year's team.
Offense is Good:
Utah's scoring offense is currently fourth in the Pac-12 at 82.3 points per game, just a fraction off of Washington's league-leading 83.5 points per game. The Utes lead the league in free throw percentage (.741) and field goal percentage (.498), so it's not just a potent scoring machine, it's also efficient. Utah has three players averaging double figures, led by Jakob Poeltl's 18, and a fourth, Lorenzo Bonham, is just off the pace at 9.9 points per game. The Runnin' Utes average nearly 10 points per game more than last season, which may be due to Utah's solid front line.
Poeltl and small forward Jordan Loveridge (13.6 points per game) are known commodities. Fans knew coming into the season what to expect, but the emergence of a third scoring big, Kyle Kuzma, has been huge for the Utes. It was Kuzma, not Poeltl, who led the Utes in scoring over Duke with 21. In fact, Kuzma has improved from 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game in 2014-2015 to 11.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this year, +8.3 points and +4.5 rebounds per game. Certainly, Kuzma is benefiting from all the defensive attention Poeltl attracts game-in and game-out, but the 6-9 redshirt sophomore is also asserting himself more, attacking the basket.
Bonham is the X-factor. He's nearly unstoppable in the open court, and is shooting a blazing .625 from 3-point land to go with .821 from the free throw line. But his ability to be a point guard, to run the offense and get open looks for teammates, is suspect. He often appears out of control driving the lane; however, he does average three assists against just 1.2 turnovers per game. Bonham's major weakness (like that of the Runnin' Utes as a whole) is on defense. If he can get better on the other side of the court, Utah could make a major run in the Pac-12 and the NCAA Tournament.
Defense is Not So Good:
Scoring the ball this season hasn't been much of a problem. Stopping the scoring on the other end has been more of a challenge. Interior defense has been good. It's the perimeter giving the Runnin' Utes fits.
Utah has had two big defensive problems this season, keeping dribblers from taking the ball right to the basket, and defending the deep ball. The new officiating emphasis has kept teams that like to bump cutters and drivers from being too physical, but Utah simply has had real troubles staying in front of opposing guards. Part of it may come from the fact that their perimeter switches create problems where bigs are isolated on quicker guards, but others have come from Brandon Taylor, Bonham, Gabe Bealer, and Dakarai Tucker. Only oft-injured shooting guard Kenneth Ogbe has been able to turn in consistent defensive performances, but his biggest problem is being healthy enough to actually play. And in Taylor's only lock-down performance, he got slugged for his effort.
On the perimeter, Utah ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.398), which is higher than any season in the Jim Boylen era (.359 being the worst allowed). Overall, Utah is just middle of the pack in field goal percentage defense (.403). Some Utes defenders are not closing out on shooters. Others seem content to sag into the lane and let their men shoot. Worse is when a Utah defender simply loses track of a known 3-point shooter, either in the half court or transition. Opposing forwards are also a problem, getting open when Utes forwards have to rotate to cover for a guard losing their man. (Much of the defensive problems could be improved by just better defense by Utah's two guards.)
The defense had better improve quickly. Utah's league worst 3-point percentage defense runs up against Colorado's Pac-12 leading 3-point shooting in Boulder in the third game of the conference season. Stanford, against whom Utah opens Pac-12 play, is fifth in the league, and California, who plays mostly one-on-one offense, will test the Utes ability to keep drivers out of the lane.
Brandon Taylor is Struggling:
There's just no way to sugar coat it. Even while the Utes had a good non-conference season, Utah's starting point guard has had a bad one. Taylor finished on last season's Sweet Sixteen team as the second leading scorer (10.6 points per game), which has dipped dramatically to 7.7 as a senior, dropping him to fifth on the team. Taylor was one of the best 3-point shooters in the Pac-12 last season (.439) but has been frigid from long range so far this year (.230). At times, Taylor will step into an open three-pointer and have a good-looking shot rim out or clank off the iron. At other times, after missing a few early, the senior seems to be throwing up shots and looking as if he's willing them to go in, forcing shots he's not set to take. His free throw percentage, while a respectable .778 is still down from last season's scorching .857.
While running the offense, Taylor has been steady. (No, really.) He averages nearly as many assists this season (3.3) as least year (3.6), although his turnovers have increased (2.7 this season to 1.7 last year). One big difference is that Taylor doesn't have his 2014-2015 running mate Delon Wright on the floor, who was Utah's leading assister (5.1 per game).
Taylor will need to step up in conference play, especially when he'll likely be undersized in most of his match-ups. The one thing he hasn't done much this season is take advantage of his speed, as he did against Duke, blowing past Blue Devil guards for a couple important layups. His 3-point percentage must improve during conference play to keep opposing guards from sagging on Poeltl and the surging Kuzma, but, most importantly, Taylor has to take care of the basketball. In Utah's two losses, turnovers were primary contributors. The senior needs to distribute the ball at a higher rate, while taking care of the ball and bettering his assist to turnover ratio.
Strong Free Throw Shooting:
If Utah has the lead late in a game, as they did against Duke in Madison Square Garden, the opposition has a difficult time overcoming it. The Runnin' Utes are shooting a league best .741 from the charity stripe. Even former liability Poeltl can now be counted on to hit .658 from the line. While that is not good, it's a huge improvement from last season's .444. The Utes archrival has lost a few games this season by not being able to make their free throws.
Utah's reliance on the interior strength of its offense also leads a number of free throw opportunities not afforded the more perimeter oriented teams. It's important, especially in tight games, for Utah's bigs to knock down free throws. However, if Utah's free throw shooting continues, Pac-12 teams that start hacking to stop clock and try to whittle down a Utah lead won't gain any ground. (It's almost like special teams in football, that third phase of the game that most fans dismiss until it's critical to the outcome of a game.)
Jakob Poeltl has lived up to his billing in the preseason. Sure, he disappeared against Miami and was taken out of the game in Wichita, but that's what good teams do. Otherwise, he has been a force on both ends of the floor, a rebounding monster, and a near unstoppable machine with the ball in the post. The only thing that has managed to stop Poeltl is himself, foul trouble, more accurately. When Poeltl is out, Kuzma slides into the center, with Chapman or Reyes as his sidekicks. But there's a significant drop off on the glass and the defensive end.
The question mark is Jayce Johnson. Does he play this season? Can head coach Larry Krystkowiak hold the talented freshman over until next season? A 7-footer with a high motor, Johnson would undoubtedly help the Utes post presence when Poeltl is sitting, but is it important enough to burn his first season on Pac-12 play alone? And is Johnson actually ready to bang with older, heavier, more experienced collegians?