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Utah open Pac-12 play in the Bay

The Runnin' Utes head to the Bay area this weekend to kick off the Pac-12 play against Stanford and Cal this weekend.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The no. 21 Runnin' Utes shook off some Holiday rust on Monday, defeating the College of Idaho 115-74. Moving forward the Utes will need to step up their game as conference play gets under way. Utah will head to the Bay area this weekend to battle the Stanford Cardinal and Cal Bears on the hardwood.

At Stanford (7-4) Jan. 1st, 7pm MT

The Cardinal are coming off a season in which they barely missed the NCAA tournament but won the NIT championship. That sounds like a team poised to make a run this year right? Unfortunately for Stanford, the players who led the Cardinal during last season's post season run, Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle were seniors and are no longer with the team. Stanford has struggled to continue last year's late season momentum, with their 69-66 win over Arkansas being their only win over a KenPom top 100 team.

Using the KenPom rankings, Stanford has beaten teams ranked below them, lost convincingly  to all top 40 teams they have faced (SMU, St. Mary's, Villanova) and played close games against middle of the pack teams (Arkansas, Texas).  Utah comes in at no. 39 in the current KenPom rankings, just below St. Mary's and just above Texas. Considering Stanford's best win is a three point win at home over a no. 82 rated Arkansas team, it would appear Utah should be the favored in this game.

Fortunately for Stanford, they do have the talent to beat the Utes. The Cardinal has a reasonably experienced roster, with two seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and a freshman in their nine man rotation. The rotation has good size with no player standing shorter than 6-1, but they also don't have anyone over 6-9. Four players average double digits in scoring. In the post 6-9 senior forward Roscoe Allen averages 13.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.4 apg and 6-8 sophomore forward Travis Reid 12.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 0.8 apg. In the backcourt 6-5 sophomore guard Dorian Pickens averages 13.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.5 apg and 6-3 junior guard Marcus Allen 13 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 2.8 apg.

Stanford likely will have not have an answer for Poeltl in the post, which could very well be the difference in this game. Utah has struggled with it's defense at times this season but should have enough offensive firepower of their own to knock off the Cardinal in Palo Alto.

At Cal (10-3) Jan 3rd, 5:30pm MT

Cal basketball is off to a good start in their second season under head coach Cuonzo Martin. The Bears are an experienced and talented team, with six of their nine man rotation being juniors or seniors. The Bears have added two very talented, 5-star rated freshman to compliment the veterans this year in forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. The Bears are one spot above Utah in the KenPom rankings, sitting at 38. The young talent combined with all-Pac-12 guard Tyrone Wallace and veterans  Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird make up a team capable of competing with anyone in the country.

The Bears proved as much last week when they traveled across the country to play the #5 ranked Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville. Cal outplayed Virginia for much of the game, leading the entire game until a minute left in regulation, when Virginia forced overtime. Cal played well in overtime as well, falling when Virginia hit a go ahead three with 13 seconds left. Cal responded by blowing out a good Davidson team by 26 points just a few nights later.

Wallace leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game, but Cal has plenty of players capable of taking over a game with Matthews, Brown and Rabb all averaging double figures and Jabari Bird being a dangerous player.  Jordan Matthews is Cal's big outside threat, shooting 41.9% from beyond the arc. Against Davidson he poured in 22 points on 5-8 shooting from behind the three point line.

In both of Utah's losses this season, the Utes have struggled with perimeter defense. Against a long athletic Cal backcourt, it will be imperative Utah tightens up on perimeter defense or it will be a long night for the Utes. Just as Utah opens Pac-12 play on New Year's day, so too will Cal, when they take on Colorado in Berkeley. Cal's game will tip off in the 9pm slot after Utah-Stanford, so fans will have a chance to preview the Bears before Utah meets them on Sunday.