The Runnin' Utes are fresh off a sweep of the Washington schools. During their weekend road trip, the Utes dominated a bottom tier Pac-12 team and knocked off the conference leader in overtime. After a disappointing start to the conference season, Utah appears to have clawed their way back to even ground and now sit in a six way tie for second place in the Pac-12.
One of the other school's stuck in the glut of Pac-12 teams tied for the top two spots is Utah's opponent on Wednesday night, the Cal Golden Bears. Cal is the same team that drubbed Utah 71-58 less than a month ago, contributing to Utah's early slide. Since the two teams met on January 5th, Utah has shown resiliency, climbing out of the early hole they dug for themselves in conference play, going 4-1 since falling to Cal, with wins against Colorado, Oregon State, Washington State and Washington.
Cal went through a rough stretch immediately following their double digit win over Utah, dropping their next three games against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford. They rebounded last week however and have their season on an upward trajectory again after two straight wins, including a 74-73 win over Arizona in Berkeley despite missing star guard Tyrone Wallace.
So what will be different when the two teams meet for the second time this season? Cal is perfect on their home court this year, the sight of Utah's earlier loss, but is a different team on the road. Cal is just 1-6 when playing away from Berkeley, their only road win coming in overtime against Wyoming. Playing at the Huntsman Center could assist the Utes as they look to avenge their earlier loss. A raucous Huntsman crowd could give Utah a boost and challenge Cal's composure especially without senior and All Pac-12 point guard Tyrone Wallace.
Wallace will not play on Wednesday due to a broken hand that has him out for six weeks. Wallace is leading the team in minutes played per game with 33.1, points per game with 15.1 and assists with 4.6 per game. This would seem to play in Utah's favor; however junior Sam Singer has stepped up since Wallace's injury and has done a nice job filling in during Cal's two game resurgence.
Singer doesn't fill up the stat sheet like Wallace did. The 6-4 guard averages only 4.3 points per game, but he is an experienced and fundamentally sound player who plays good defense. Singer is efficient running Cuonzo Martin's offense, limiting mistakes, distributing the ball and keeping the defense honest, occasionally driving to the basket or pulling up for a jumper. Still the loss of Wallace will be a factor, as he has traditionally played well against the Utes, scoring in double digits in five of his six games against Utah.
What will probably play a bigger factor however is Jakob Poelt's ability to be effective in the post. As was made clear against Washington, when Poeltl plays well, Utah is tough to beat. Last time out against Cal, Poeltl struggled, hitting just 6 of 14 shots. Cal is the number one team in the conference in defending against two point attempts and has one of the tallest and most physical backcourts Utah will face. Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks both stand over seven feet and were able to throw Poeltl off his game in the first meeting.
Talented Cal freshman Ivan Rabb also caused problems for Utah in their first meeting, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Guard Jordan Matthews continues to be a dangerous threat, shooting 55% from three over the past four games and pouring in 28 most recently against Arizona.
Utah struggled to get off to a fast start in last meeting, scoring only 22 first half points. Starting well will be key in setting the tone for the evening on Wednesday. Another area of struggle last time the two teams met was getting shots to fall. Utah shot only 38.5% in the loss and were also outrebounded 39-28. It's difficult to foresee Utah shooting so poorly this time around on their home floor and Utah has also improved on rebounding recently. Against Washington, Larry Krystkowiak emphasized crashing the boards to the team, a factor that helped propel Utah to the road win.
This game will be crucial in gaining an upper hand in the log jam that is the Pac-12. Both teams are on the upswing at the moment, though Utah appears to have really galvanized recently and has been hitting their stride for a bit longer than Cal. Combine with the fact Cal is missing it's most important player and the game is being played in Salt Lake City, Utah should have the advantage heading into Wednesday night's contest.
You can watch the game on ESPNU, tip-off is at 9pm MT. As always you can listen to action on ESPN700 with Bill Riley and Jimmy Soto.