The No. 9 Runnin Utes (20-4, 10-2 Pac-12) head out on the road after another successful home stand to take on the Oregon schools this week. This could prove to be a tricky road trip with Oregon State proving to be a tough out on their home court and Oregon currently on a hot streak. First up, the Utes will test their mettle against a Beaver team that has yet to lose at home this season when the two schools meet at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.
The Utes moved up in the rankings to no. 9 in the country following their sweep of the bay schools last week. The Utes have now been ranked twelve weeks in a row, their best stretch since being ranked fourteen weeks in a row during the 1997-98 Final Four season. The two schools were the latest victims in what is turning into not just a successful, but dominant season for Utah. Both Stanford and Cal are solid Pac-12 teams who played well early but ultimately ended up being overwhelmed by the Utes. The Utes lead the nation with most wins over twenty points and continue to win by an average margin of 22.8 points per game over Pac-12 opponents.
Oregon State (16-9, 7-6 Pac-12) is led by coach Wayne Tinkle in his first year at Oregon State. Tinkle was a relative unknown when he came over from Montana to take over a fledgling Oregon State program, but the results have been impressive thus far. The Beavers are off to their best home record in history so far at 14-0, attendance for Pac-12 games is up 42% and the Beavers are positioned to be invited to a post season tournament.
A win over the Utes on Thursday is important for the Beavers for a few different reasons. A win would guarantee the Beavers would finish with a winning record for just the third time since the 1989-90 season. Coincidentally current point guard Gary Payton II's dad, the elder Gary Payton, was the point guard during the 89-90 season. The Beavers will have the most wins by an Oregon State team in a single season at home with a win. It would mark the first time since the 1975-76 season Oregon State has beaten two top ten teams in the same season and it would equal Oregon State's most conference wins the 1992-93 season.
Oregon State showed Gill Coliseum is a tough place to play on January 11th when Arizona was handed their first conference loss 58-56 at the hands of the Beavers. Much like the Utes, Oregon State's success starts on defense. Opponents are being held to 35.5% shooting in Corvallis and the Beavers are on pace to set school records in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense. Oregon State also leads the Pac-12 in steals with 7.8 per game and are second in the Pac-12 in turnover margin at +2.5 per game.
Gary Payton II is the best player for the Beavers and seems to have picked right where his dad left off with the Beavers. Payton II leads the team scoring (13.1 points per game), rebounding (7.9 per game) and steals (3 per game). He also leads the Pac-12 and is third in the nation with 3.04 steals per game and is on pace for 94 steals for the season which would place him 2nd for most steals in a season behind only his dad, Gary Payton. He also is the only Pac-12 player with a steal in every game and has a streak of 25 consecutive games with a steal going.
Another Oregon State player to watch is 6'5" junior guard Langston Morris Walker. Morris Walker is averaging 10.1 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game, however he has been hot recently, scoring in double figures in the past three games and is 9 for 21 from behind the three point arc the past four games. Jamal Reid is another player to keep an eye on. The 6'7" junior forward has been coming on strong as of late scoring in double figures five out of the past seven games. Reid has stepped in nicely as forward Victor Robbins, the second leading scorer for the Beavers, was suspended indefinitely back in January.
As tough as the Beavers are on defense, they'll have to shut down a formidable Utes team in order to extend their home winning streak. Wooden and Naismith award finalist, Delon Wright, is on pace to become just the second Utah player, other than Josh Grant, to finish his career with 1,000 points, 375 rebounds, 150 steals and 75 blocks. Junior guard Brandon Taylor is averaging 12.3 points per game and currently shooting 55% on 3-pointers. Jakob Poeltl was just named a finalist for Kareem Abdul-Jabar award, for best center in the nation, and is coming off a huge game in which he had 18 points and 8 rebounds.
On defense the Utes are just as tough as Oregon State. The Utes rank 10th in the nation in scoring defense (56.44 points per game), 13th in field goal percentage defense at 37.9% and rank 4th in the nation at defending 2-point shots allowing only 40.1%. Poeltl also provides an inside presence the Beavers lack, ranking 3rd in the Pac-12 in blocks an 7th in rebounds. Oregon State has been out rebounded their past six games and have gone 2-4 in that stretch. Poeltl's presence should have a huge impact on this game.
The key to the game however, might be Utah's shooting percentage. Oregon State's success hinges heavily on how well they can force their opposition into bad shots. In games where the Beavers opponents shot less than 40% from the field, Oregon state is 15-1. In games where Oregon State opponents shot better than 40% from the field, the Beavers are 1-8.
The bad new for the Beavers is Utah is one of the most efficient scoring offenses in the nation, shooting 49.7% from the field. Delon Wright ranks 10th in the conference in field goal percentage (52.2%) and 13th in scoring (14.3 points per game). Brandon Taylor is shooting 48.3% from the field and Poeltl is converting 67.4% of his shots. The Utes are deep enough and talented enough that Oregon State will have a difficult time holding the Utes below 40% from the field.
The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks at 9pm MT. Bill Riley will have the radio play-by-play on ESPN700.