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Evaluating the Runnin’ Utes so far

NCAA Basketball: Prairie View A&M at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

With conference play fast approaching (Utah will compete in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic this holiday weekend, but Illinois State? Really? Come on.), it’s time to play the game, “Where do the Runnin’ Utes stand in the Pac-12?”

It’s nearly impossible to judge this Utah team based off of what we’ve seen without transfers Sedrick Barfield and David Collette (their lone appearance this season was against Prairie View A&M on Dec. 17, so we can toss that out the window, too), but let’s give it a try anyway.

Here’s where I envision Utah stands at this point in time based off of how each team has looked thus far. Take these rankings with a grain of salt, as we all know that exhibition play is the equivalent of playing pick-up ball with your friends at the local gym before the real season begins.

1. UCLA

2. USC

3. Oregon

4. Arizona

5. California

6. Utah

7. Stanford

8. Colorado

9. Arizona State

10. Washington

11. Washington State

12. Oregon State

Heading into the season, much was made of Chris Boucher, Dillon Brooks and the Oregon Ducks after earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year. But injuries, and maybe some overhype, have kept this team from meeting its expectations early on. The same goes for Arizona, who’s dealing with an injuries to Ray Smith and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and still haven’t seen sophomore guard Allonzo Trier take the court thanks to off-the-court issues.

Despite these roadblocks, Oregon and Arizona still remain in top 4, as they’ve been able to stay afloat without some of their best players available. Both of these teams will be in contention once fully healthy, which will be a welcome competition in the Pac-12 with 4-6 teams vying for the No. 1 spot.

Instead, it’s the schools in Los Angeles who have been making early-season noise, as both UCLA and USC are both undefeated as the exhibition season nears its end. The Bruins, led by freshman sensation Lonzo Ball, have been doubly impressive, knocking off former No. 1 Kentucky IN LEXINGTON to go with a number of other solid wins over Michigan, Texas A&Mand Ohio State.

The Trojans, on the other hand, haven’t had as impressive of a resume, but still are undefeated. Without a loss to their name, it’s hard to place a team with one above them, for the time being.

Now, back to the Utes. Originally, they were picked to finish 8th in the preseason poll, so an early slot at sixth is somewhat of an overachievement.

Let’s take a look on the surface. The Utes are 7-2 with losses to two top-20 teams in Xavier (on the road) and Butler. Among the wins -- all at home -- none of them are deemed notable, per se, with the win over UVU probably being the most impressive considering the Wolverines took it to the TDS on its home court last month.

While their nonconference schedule has been weak, to say the least, they’ve done what they are supposed to do by beating up on inferior teams and keeping it close with Xavier and Butler (sorta), even without Barefield and Collette.

Kuzma has been a stud, which was expected heading into the season. Dating back to his freshman days, I always assumed that he would take over as more of a star/leadership role eventually, more so than his fellow freshman Brekkott Chapman who received more minutes during their first seasons on the court.

Currently, he’s averaging 16.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, which isn’t surprising considering he’s been one of the few go-to options for Utah. That said, there are still things that Kuzma can work on, including finding higher-percentage looks versus settling for long-range jumpers. He’s just not at the point where defenders are respecting his jumper, making it harder for him to drive, where I believe he is more effective.

Lorenzo Bonam has also been solid and, at times, the only source of offense when others go cold. His ball-handling and finishing abilities allow him to get buckets when the offense stalls, but his defense could still use a little more work.

And again, both of these guys need to form a respectable jumper in order to take their games to the next level. Right now, they are a combined 11-for-54 from three-point range, and while that may not be their first option in terms of scoring the ball, it’s a vital aspect that would really spread the floor and open things up not only for themselves, but for the rest of the team, as well.

Of course, the storyline of the exhibition season has been that the Utes have been without two key components -- at least that’s what fans are hoping -- in Barefield and Collette. A Barefield/Collette-led squad will undoubtedly answer some of the early kinks that have been existent early on, which include protecting the rim and the transition game.

Nothing against Jayce Johnson or Tyler Rawson, but both are still acclimating to the physical style of play that is college basketball, even though Johnson has been around since his redshirt season last year and Rawson played in the JUCO ranks. Collette has minutes at this level under his belt already, though it be in the Mountain West, and will bring an immediate toughness under the basket.

And Barefield? He might just be the best player on the team. Go back and look at his highlight tapes from high school and you’ll see a player who has a tight handle and a knack for making the right plays. He just has “it,” so it seems.

I’m not oblivious to think that just because he has a decent highlight tape, that it means he’ll be a good player. But his skillset certainly addresses some of the weaker areas of Utah’s game at the moment.

Right now, the Runnin’ Utes are an average team, hence the sixth spot in the rankings. There’s obvious room for improvement, and the most optimistic of fans will hope that the additions of Barefield and Collette will bring them to the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

For now, they are light years behind teams like UCLA, Arizona and Oregon. But as we all know, things can change rapidly once Pac-12 play starts, so we’ll revisit these rankings after the first week of the New Year.