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Runnin' Utes Host Dangerous Stanford

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The No. 11 Utes look to remain undefeated at home when the Stanford Cardinal comes to town on Thursday night.

Chasson Randle and Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins are in search of a signature win.
Chasson Randle and Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins are in search of a signature win.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The media often talk about trap games, and Thursday's game (7 p.m. MT) between the No. 11-ranked Runnin' Utes (18-4, 8-2 Pac-12) and the Pac-12's third place Stanford Cardinal (16-7, 7-4 Pac-12) sets up like a trap. The Utes will be at home, where they have a 15-game winning streak going, and the natural tendency is to look ahead to the showdown with the surprise team of the conference season, Oregon State, which is a road game up in Corvallis. But the Utes can't afford to go through the motions or sleep-walk through this one.

Utah leads the all time series against the Cardinal 15-11, however Stanford has won three straight in the series. This will be the only time Utah and Stanford meet in the regular season. In their last meeting, Stanford won a nail biter, 61-60 in Palo Alto.

The Utes recently climbed back to No. 11 in the AP poll after soundly defeating Colorado 79-51 in Boulder on Saturday. The Utes now head into the home stretch to close out the season with only eight games left to go. With only one ranked team in Arizona remaining on the schedule, the Utes have themselves in great position to finish out the season strong and potentially wind up with the top seed in the PAc-12 tournament.

Stanford has post season aspirations as well, and Thursday's game will kick off a key road swing for the Cardinal, which will factor heavily into their postseason chances. Stanford is on the bubble to make the tournament, and, while there is still plenty of basketball to played, Stanford needs to find a high profile win to impress the selection committee. Their biggest win to date is over Texas, who they outlasted in overtime back on December 23rd. Texas however has lost four of their last five games and dropped out of the top 25, leaving Stanford in a bit of a lurch when it comes to quality victories. The only other win Stanford might have been able to point to, is another overtime win on January 4th over, at the time No. 21-ranked, Washington. The Huskies implosion, however, has also sunk any credibility the Cardinal may have gained from that victory. Stanford only has two ranked opponents left on their schedule, No. 11 Utah and No. 7 Arizona.

Stanford is 3-3 in their last six games. The three losses were by a combined 10 points however and the loss to no. 7 ranked Arizona accounted for seven of the ten points. The past two games have been absolute heart breakers for a team fighting for a tournament berth. The Cardinal suffered an 89-88 loss at Washington State and then last Thursday, after coming back from a 58-36 deficit in the final 10 minutes, the Cardinal had a shot at the buzzer to win the game, only to come up short.

Stanford is led by 6-2 senior guard Chasson Randle, averaging 20.3 points per game. Randle dominates the ball and sets the tempo for the Stanford team. Randle is a scoring machine and can create his own shot by driving the lane or pulling up for three. The Utes will need to guard Randle closely, and fans should expect to see Delon Wright on him much of the night.

When Randle doesn't have the ball, 6-6, 215-pound guard/forward Anthony Brown has the ability to score in bunches. Brown averages 15.8 points per game and is lethal behind the arc, shooting 46.4 percent from downtown. If Randle is locked up or having an off night, Brown has the ability to take over the game. He's scored in double figures in all but two games this season. Against Texas, he led the Cardinal with 25 points going 4-for-4 from three-point range, and Brown also spearheaded the dramatic comeback against UCLA last week.

The Utes, meanwhile, look to be back on track after losing to UCLA in Los Angeles. Utah has ripped off two dominating performances on the road, first against USC and then Colorado. While those wins probably don't do much more than maintain the Utes current status in the national perception, they give the team a boost of confidence coming back to the Jon M. Huntsman Center, where Utah remains unbeaten this season. The Runnin' Utes are winning by an average margin of 24.6 points at the Huntsman Center. In addition to the strong home court advantage, the Utes lead the Pac-12, and rank fifth in the nation, in field goal percentage this season, shooting 50 percent.

A couple Utes who could give Stanford problems on Thursday are, of course, Austrian big man Jakob Poeltl and guard Brandon Taylor. The 7-footer will look to continue his breakout season, only four blocks away from setting the Utah single season freshman record for blocks, and he remains in the mix to set the record for field goal percentage, currently 58.8 percent. Poeltl has positioned himself to enter into an elite category of Utah players at the end of the season. Only two other players in Utah history have averaged over 9.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and blocked 40 shots as a freshman. Those player were Andrew Bogut and Keith Van Horn.

Junior guard Brandon Taylor also stands out as someone Stanford will need to watch. Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge will likely get most of the defensive attention from Stanford, but Taylor has been a difference maker this season for the Utes and has been on fire as of late. Taylor will have an opportunity in this game to move into sixth place all time at Utah for three-pointers made. He currently has 149 and needs four more to surpass Josh Grant and Phil Cullen. He currently ranks second in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage, shooting a scorching 57.1 percent from behind the arc since league play began.

On paper, the Utes hold an advantage in shooting and assists, while Stanford averages slightly more rebounds than Utah. Overall, though, the stats between the two are pretty even.

Stat

Utah

Stanford

PPG

74.2

74.9

RPG

35.7

37.2

APG

15.2

12.9

FG %

0.500

0.447

Where Stanford may have success is with their ability to take care of the ball. The Utes thrive on turnovers, turning them into points at the other end. Stanford is the best in the Pac-12 at protecting the ball, averaging only 10.5 turnovers per game. If Stanford can continue to limit turnovers and hit the three, they have a chance to hang around in this game.

Where the Utes will likely find their biggest advantage is at the defensive end. The Utes trademark this season has become their stifling defense, and the stats bear that out. The Utes are currently holding opponents to only 37.5% shooting from the field, good for 10th in the nation. Stanford is a good shooting team, particularly from behind the three-point line, where they shoot 40.3 percent as a team, ranking them 12th in the nation. The Utes however, are the best team in the Pac-12 at defending the perimeter, holding opponents to a league low 30.8 percent from deep.

Look for the Utes to key in on Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown and limit their scoring opportunities. The Utes should remain efficient scoring the ball against this Stanford team and the team will feed off the energy of the home crowd. Runnin' Utes should win and remain undefeated in the Huntsman Center.

The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks, with Ted Robinson and Don MacLean providing the call.