Stephen F. Austin (29-4, 17-1) has been a trendy 12/5 upset pick among national pundits (along with Buffalo) in this year's NCAA Tournament. We all know there will be at least one 12/5 upset, and the Utes don't want it to be them, but No. 19 Utah's late season swoon, going 4-4 in their last eight games, put them in this position. So if everyone believes SFA will knock off the Utes, what are the reasons to believe Utah will advance?
I'm glad you asked. Here are three reasons the Runnin' Utes beat the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin to advance to the next round:
Utah has it. Stephen F. Austin does not. The Lumberjacks have only one player on the roster over 6-foot-7, which is 6-9 Tanner Clayton (4.1 points, 3.4 rebounds per game). Utah, on the other hand, has five players over 6-7, including three taller than Clayton. If the Utes guards can get the ball inside (and that's a bigger if than it should be), Utah should dominate on the glass and on points in the paint. Jakob Poeltl, especially, should be able to post a double-double in the very least, and Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma could also have big games against the smaller Lumberjacks.
The X-factors here could be Chris Reyes and Jordan Loveridge. The junior college transfer lost his starting job to the more talented Chapman, but Reyes could get some cheap buckets on his signature offensive rebounds. Loveridge should be able to drive the paint at will on SFA, but his impact will be most felt if he's making layups and clearing rebounds. Here's a bold prediction: If Jordan Loveridge gets more than his four rebound per game average, Utah wins. I really think Loveridge has to step up in this one, and this would be the team to help a player really get on track rebounding-wise.
The Wright Stuff:
Utah has an All Pac-12 performer and All American in senior guard Delon Wright. While Stephen F. Austin roster features both of the last two Southland Conference Players of the Year, Thomas Walkup (2015) and Jacob Parker (2014), they don't have a player with quite the all-around skill set of Wright. But now is the time for Wright to really lead his team to the win, not just put up gaudy statistics. Wright has to make plays on both ends of the floor tonight. Against Oregon, Wright took the ball into the Ducks' defense and drew a late foul that helped Utah tie the game on the senior's free throws. However, on the ensuing possession, Wright practically ran away from Joseph Young, rather than making a defensive player, leaving the Pac-12 Player of the Year one-on-one with Poeltl. Tonight, Wright needs to finish off the game with the winning plays on both ends. The Wooden Award candidate should be able to put a lot of pressure on the pressure man-to-man defense of Stephen F. Austin, drawing fouls, getting to the free throw line, and dishing to open Utes.
Strength of Schedule:
As said during The U Fan Cast, Stephen F. Austin hasn't played an NCAA Tournament-quality team since November 24 of last year. In the interim, the Lumberjacks have had a six-point win over Texas State, a four-point win over Cal State Northridge, as well as numerous blow-outs of tournament titans like Incarnate Word, Sam Houston State, and Houston Baptist. They also feature and actual loss to (my personal favorite) Texas A&M... Corpus Christi. SFA went 17-1 in conference, and it's impressive when anyone dominates their conference, but I don't see the Southland Conference as any better (possibly worse) than the Big Sky, and no one would be shaking in their boots over a matchup with Weber State. Is it because these smaller conference teams aren't any good? These 12/5 upsets show us that's definitely not the case, but in this instance, SFA has faced just three tournament teams all season long and lost to all three, including a home loss to Northern Iowa. The Lumberjacks only win of any note whatsoever was against Memphis, which won 18 games and failed to make the tourney.
Some SFA numbers to consider:
- Their overall record is 29-4, but three don't count in the RPI, as those were non-D-I wins.
- 0-3 vs the RPI Top 50.
- SOS 193.
- Non-conference SOS was 179.
- Conference SOS was 212.
Utah, on the other hand, faced a Washington team (before they dismissed the nation's leading shot blocker) who handily beat No. 13 Oklahoma. Utah dominated that matchup with the Huskies. At home in the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Utah beat 11-seed UCLA like a drum and Wichita State, while knocking off the West Coast Conferences No. 2 team, BYU in the Marriott Center. The Utes also took No. 10 and two-seed Kansas to the wire in what amounted to a home game for the Jayhawks. Utah has prepared for the tournament both in the non-conference season and during Pac-12 play. SFA has not, and their 12-seed clearly reflects that.
Utah and Stephen F. Austin tipoff tonight at 5:27 p.m. MT from Portland, Ore. TV coverage provided by truTV.