One down, one more to go. The Utes will look to extend their winning streak to five games on Saturday afternoon when Stanford comes to the Huntsman Center. Utah is one win a way from avenging a nightmare weekend back in January when they dropped both games in the Bay area to open the Pac-12 season on a bad note. The two losses contributed to Utah's 1-3 start in conference play. Utah's 73-64 win over Cal continued a somewhat impressive recovery from the Utes, who are now winners of five of their last six games.
If you don't remember, Utah led the last meeting with Stanford almost wire to wire, before allowing the Cardinal to send the game into overtime in a flurry of missed free throws and bad defense. Stanford would go on to win the game in overtime in what was maybe the most frustrating loss Utah has suffered this season.
Since the New Year's day debacle, Stanford has struggled with consistency in Pac-12 play. They have not won or lost consecutive games, alternating in an almost predictable win/loss/win/loss sequence. In Pac-12 play their wins have come by an average of four points, while their losses have come by an average of 11 points. Their wins have come against Utah, Cal and bottom tier Pac-12 teams Arizona State and Oregon State. They have lost to top tier teams Oregon and Arizona and have now lost twice to Colorado, most recently falling 91-75 in Boulder on Wednesday.
Last time out senior forward Rosco Allen did plenty of damage with 17 points, five rebounds and a steal. Utah didn't seem to have an answer for him late in the game, as Allen helped lead the comeback to tie the game at the end of regulation and scored five points in overtime. Freshman guard Marcus Sheffield had his best game of his young career, scoring 17 points as well, to go with four boards. While Allen has remained a consistent threat as Stanford's leading scorer, Sheffield has been largely inconsistent through conference play.
Utah's defense has tightened up significantly since the Stanford game and the result has been evident in the win/loss column. Utah is currently leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 66.9 points per game in conference play. While Utah still struggles from occasional defenses lapses, they have vastly improved since the last meeting between these two teams and Stanford should have a more difficult time scoring this time around.
As the two games against Cal demonstrated, home court advantage can play a big role in games as well. Just as Cal has struggled on the road, so has the Cardinal. Stanford has only played five road games this entire season going just 1-4. Their only road win was a six point victory in Corvallis against Oregon State. Conversely Utah's only home loss came against Oregon, and while it was a doozy, Stanford is nowhere near the team Oregon is right now and could struggle with the Huntsman Center environment. Utah happens to be 11-3 all time against Stanford in Salt Lake City and Stanford has only won once in their past ten tries at the Huntsman Center.
Utah is currently one win away from matching the program's best winning streak in the Pac-12 of five games. The Utes set that mark last year during the first two weeks of February. One of the main reasons for Utah's recent success has been the dominant play of Jakob Poeltl. The sophomore's 21 points against Cal was his second consecutive game with over 20 points after putting 29 on Washington last week. This is the second time this season Poeltl has had back to back 20 point games and Saturday will provide the big man a chance to score over 20 for three consecutive games for the first time in his collegiate career. Poeltl has now been named Pac-12 player of the week three times this season, the first Utah player to do so.
Another player beginning to come on strong for Utah is Brandon Taylor. The senior guard has struggled with his shot this season, but has picked up his play in recent weeks, scoring in double figures four times since Pac-12 play began. His shot looks to be coming back, knocking down a pair of big three pointers against Cal, as well as going 5-7 from beyond the arc against Washington State. Along with his 15 points against Cal on Wednesday, Taylor also did not have a turnover and ran the pick and roll to perfection with Poeltl.
Heading into Saturday's contest, this game feels similar to the Cal game. Utah has momentum on it's side to go along with home court advantage and the revenge factor for this season's earlier loss. Utah also has a talent advantage in this game which wasn't necessarily the case against Cal's guards on Wednesday. The key to this game comes down to defensive effort on Utah's part. With Poeltl and Kuzma down low, Utah should have their way in the paint. If Utah can keep their focus for all 40 minutes and keep Rosco Allen in check, Utah should win this game and run their win streak to five.
The game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks at 3pm on Saturday. You can listen to the action on ESPN700.