The Runnin' Utes are now five games into their Pac-12 slate, and most fans would agree the early returns are not what most had hoped for. Utah sits 2-3 in conference with both victories being come from behind wins, where the team had to rally in the second half. In their three losses they were outmatched against Oregon and Cal and allowed Stanford to come back and win after leading most of the game. Utah has not been playing like a tournament team as of late, yet Joe Lunardi included them in his latest bracketology, listing them as a 9 seed on Monday. If the Utes are to live up to Lunardi's projection, they can take a big step in right direction this weekend when they face Washington State and the University of Washington on a quick two game road swing.
First up is the Cougars in Pullman at 8pm on Thursday. Washington State has struggled this season, coming into tonight's contest with a (9-8, 1-4) record. The Cougars have lost three straight, most recently coming off a 90-66 beat down at the hands of Arizona. Utah is 3-2 when facing the Cougars in Pullman and hold a 17-4 adavantage in the all time series.
The Cougars are led by 6-10 forward Josh Hawkinson. If Washington State is to mount any type of run through the second half of the season, Hawkinson will be the guy to lead them. The junior leads the team in points per game (16.8), rebounds per game (11.2) and field goal percentage (.562). Hawkinson is a big body that has a nice touch near the basket and has thirteen double-doubles this season.
Complimenting Hawkinson in the backcourt is junior guard Ike Iroegbu. The 6-2 guard is second on the team in points per game (14.2) second in rebounds per game (3.2) and leaads the team in assists (4.1). Together Iroegbu and Hawkinson are first and second in almost every statistical category and are the clear leaders of the team.
The Cougars do well when running a fast break offense and can throw off opposing teams with quick scoring runs. Washington State struggles however when the fast break is not there and they are forced to run a traditional half-court offense. Defense has not been the hallmark for this Utah team, but they should be good enough to throw Washington State off their game and force them into half court sets. That being said, if the Utes come out complacent, Hawkinson and Iroegbu have the ability to run right by the Utes.
On Sunday Utah will cross the mountains to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies. The Huskies are a bit of a surprise team with a record of (13-5, 5-1) good for first place in the Pac-12. Their only conference loss came at the hands of Arizona in Tucson. The Huskies are coming off a 95-83 win over Colorado last night, that kept them in first place for the time being.
The Huskies are an extremely talented and athletic team led by a senior point guard in Andrew Andrews. So why is it a surprise they are currently ranked first in the Pac-12? Behind Andrews is four freshman, DeJounte Murray, Marquese Chriss, David Crisp and Noah Dickerson all averaging over twenty minutes a game. The young freshman have wasted no time acclimating to the college game and are making their names known around the league.
As mentioned earlier, Andrews leads the group in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounds per game (6.3) and assists per game (5). The young guys are not far behind however, with Murray, Chriss and Crisp all averaging double figures in the scoring column. The Huskies like to play pressure defense to create turnovers and have a flare for finishing plays with rim rattling dunks and alley oops. They are young, brash and a very dangerous squad to come across now that they are beginning to gel together.
This week was to serve as a test of sorts for whether this Washington team was really as good as they seem to be, or if they were just a paper tiger. With a convincing win over Colorado already in the books, it's up to Utah to stand their ground on Sunday. Utah has the advantage in experience and has an elite post player in Poeltl. Washington will have the advantage in guard play and overall athleticism, not to mention a rowdy home court advantage. At first glance this appears to be a tough matchup for Utah.
Thursday's game against Washington State will be televised on FoxSports1 at 8pm MT. Sunday's game against Washington will be televised on ESPNU at 5:30 PM MT.