In one of the most critical games of the season, Utah (20-4, 10-2) will clash with Oregon State (16-9, 7-6) in a battle of surprising teams at 9 p.m. MT tonight in Corvallis. The Utes were picked second in the conference, so, perhaps, it's not accurate to call Utah a surprise, but Oregon State was picked by the media to finish dead last this season and have defied those predictions. Instead, the Beavers are tied with disappointing Stanford for fifth place, a just a half game behind surging UCLA for the fourth spot.
Utah will need a fast start tonight, as Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle's team is undefeated (14-0) in Corvallis this season. Hopefully, turn up the defensive pressure early, rather than waiting until the game is in jeopardy. When the Utes press early and force turnovers, the score hovers in the 10-point danger zone for opposing teams.
Oregon State is a very similar team to Utah, with three players averaging in the low double figures, led by talented guard Gary Payton II (13.1 points per game). Shutting down Payton will be, obviously, the most important, not only because he leads the team in points, but also because he's the team's leading rebounder (by a pretty wide margin, too). Utah needs to find Payton on both ends and block him out.
Oregon State is a defense minded team, holding teams to just 57.5 points per game, while averaging 61.6 point themselves. If Utah can get on the glass and get some transition buckets, the Utes might be able to push the pace into a zone where the Beavers are not comfortable. Scoring will be a premium in Corvallis, so a few cripples will be critical. Also, the Utes cannot afford to miss layups, as they have a tendency to do from time-to-time, and free throws will be very important in what should be a tight contest.
Utah should have the advantage along the front line, with no player that can really matchup with center Jakob Poeltl. It will be important for Poeltl to both stay out of foul trouble, as well as for the Utes to get him more than just his 5.6 attempts per game. Against Cal, Poeltl had nine attempts and hit seven of those, finishing with 18 points, along with eight rebounds. Utah plays better when they play inside-out, rather than outside-in. Plus, Oregon State leads the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense at an abysmally low 29.4 percent. Utah cannot settle for jumpers against the Beavers, or this could be an upset. If Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski can dominate the paint, along with contributions from freshman Brekkott Chapman and unsung hero Chris Reyes, the perimeter will open up for the shooters like Dakarai Tucker, Brandon Taylor, and Jordan Loveridge.