Utah basketball is back in the Big Dance. For the first time since 2009, the Runnin' Utes heard their name called on selection Sunday. The selection into the tournament serves as a major milestone for a program that won just six games in coach Krystkowiak's first year at Utah.
The Utes (24-8, 13-5) of the Pac-12 drew a five seed in the South region and will face off against the 12th seeded Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (29-4, 17-1) of the Southland Conference. The 5/12 matchup carries some mystique, as 12-seeds have historically had success against five-seeds. Since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, in only three years, 1988, 2000 and 2007, has a 12-seed failed to defeat a five-seed. It was only a year ago when Stephen F. Austin was seeded 12th and sent fifth-seeded VCU home in the first round. Utah fans should be familiar with the feeling, as the last Utah tournament team suffered the dreaded 5/12 upset as Arizona knocked Jim Boylen's Utes out of the tournament in the first round in 2009.
What can the Utes do to prevent history from repeating itself? Let's take a closer look at Stephen F. Austin.
The Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin are a trendy pick to be the cinderella 12-seed in this year's tournament, and on the surface it's easy to see why. The Lumberjacks have been very successful under coach Brad Underwood. The Jacks have ripped through the Southland conference the past two years going a perfect 18-0 last year and 17-1 this year. Fifteen of their 17 conference wins this year came by double digits. Of course their tournament win of a year ago probably plays heavily into the minds of those predicting an upset.
The Jacks have two guys who can light up the scoreboard in guard Thomas Walkup (15.4 ppg) and forward Jacob Parker (14.7 ppg) and as a team they average 79.5 points per game, good for 9th in the country. They shoot 49.1% from the field as a team and have a number of post players that can step out and shoot it from deep. None of the Lumberjacks top five scorers average fewer than seven points per game. Needless to say the Lumberjacks can score.
Stephen F. Austin thrives playing in transition. They play man-on-man, pressure defense,. and try to create turnovers to pick up easy baskets in transition. This is their bread and butter, and they are good at this style of play, causing opponents to turn the ball over on 24% of their offensive posessions this year. The drawback to this aggressive style of play, is it results in the Lumberjacks committing a lot of fouls.
If Stephen F. Austin's opponents are able to beat the pressure and set up a half court offense, the Lumberjacks defense struggles, giving up 64.6 points per game. The Lumberjacks play a smaller lineup, with only one player on the roster standing taller than 6-foot-7, that being 6-9 forward Tanner Clayton. They can struggle against bigger teams on the boards, averaging 34.8 rebounds per game ranking them 155th in the nation.
The Lumberjacks faced three tournament teams this year (Northern Iowa, Xavier, and Baylor), and while they took Northern Iowa to overtime at home, they lost all three games. Their best win this season came against a Memphis team that finished 18-14 and failed to make a postseason tournament of any kind. Despite the gaudy record and stats for Stephen F. Austin, they have yet to beat an opponent of any merit this season.
Looking toward Thursday's game at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., it appears the Utes match up quite well against this Lumberjack team. The national opinion seems to be that Stephen F. Austin is primed to make a run; however, the Utes seem poised to take advantage of all the Lumberjacks weaknesses.
As mentioned earlier, Stephen F. Austin likes to score points off of turnovers, which they do using pressure man defense. The Utes have Delon Wright, one of the best point guards in the country, and a player that should be able to take care of the ball, while breaking any press the Utes might see. If the Utes are fouled bringing the ball up by the Lumberjacks aggressive defense, Wright shoots 83 percent from the line and Brandon Taylor 87 percent. Utah also fares well against man defense. The Utes style of penetrating the lane and then kicking out to an open wing or dishing the rock to Poeltl seems to be at its best when Wright and Taylor can go one-on-one with a defender. If the Utes can set up a half court offense, they should be able to have success against the Lumberjacks.
Jakob Poeltl, Dallin Bachynski, and Jeremy Olsen all have one thing in common. They are all taller than any player on Stephen F. Austin. This should be a game where Utah can crash the boards and dominate in rebounding. I stress "should" because Utah has been inconsistent in this area at times against teams it should out-rebound. Never the less, the Utes have a substantial size advantage across the front line against the Lumberjacks. Poeltl and Bachynski should have plenty of chances for putbacks on the offensive end and be able to clean up the defensive boards, limiting the Lumberjacks offensive opportunities to one shot possessions.
Finally, athletically, there is no comparison between these two teams. Walkup and Parker are good, solid, fundamental players who can do some damage when they are playing well. They will struggle to find opportunities against Utah's smothering defense, however. When the Lumberjacks aren't creating turnovers, they rely on outside shooting. Unfortunately for them, Utah is one of the best teams in the nation at guarding the perimeter, and Delon Wright is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Both Walkup and Parker will be physically outmatched against players like Wright, Brekkot Chapman, and Jordan Loveridge, and will struggle to create their own shots in this game. If Stephen F. Ausitn is forced to shoot their way to victory, it's going to be a long night for them.
The key to beating Stephen F. Austin appears pretty simple. Take care of the ball on the offensive end, and limit transition opportunities for the Lumberjacks on the defensive end. If the Utes can keep their composure, limit turnovers, and set up a half court offense that feeds the low post, the Utes should win comfortably. If the Utes get rattled and commit turnovers, things could get dicey, as the game will play right into the Lumberjacks hands.
The Utes return to the Big Dance on Thursday at 5:27 p.m. MT on truTV. Or you can watch the action online at www.cbssports.com