Only three games remain in the Utah Runnin' Utes 2015-16 regular season. Utah currently sits tied for second place in the Pac-12 with Arizona, a half game bhind Oregon, and still very much in play for the regular season conference crown. With the Arizona schools visiting Salt Lake City this weekend, Utah will have an opportunity to overtake at least Arizona in the standings by Sunday.
If Utah wants to get to a major showdown with Arizona on Saturday, the first thing they need to do is handle cellar dweller Arizona State. The Sun Devils (14-13, 4-10) do not have an impressive record, especially in the Pac-12, but could prove dangerous if the Utes get caught looking ahead. Arizona State has beaten some quality teams this year, with eight wins against the RPI top 100, including early season wins against Texas A&M, NC State, and on the road against Creighton.
Despite some quality wins early in the season, Utah has plenty working in it's favor heading into Thursday night's game. The Sun Devils have stumbled through Pac-12 play, with their only wins coming against Washington State (twice), Oregon State, and most recently USC. Their only conference road win was in Pullman against the Cougars. On just Tuesday of this week, first year head coach Bobby Hurley announced junior guard Andre Spight had plans to transfer from the program and had left the team effective immediately. Spight was not a starter for the Devils, making his contributions off the bench, but averaged 19.5 minutes per game and had proved to be effective at times. Just two weeks ago Spight had 21 points against UCLA and followed that performance up with 15 points against Arizona in his final game as a Sun Devil.
Arizona has a couple of talented guards in sophomore point guard Tra Holder and senior Gerry Blakes, both averaging double figures in scoring. The team lacks depth however, especially up front where only one player stands over 6-7, that being 6-10 senior Eric Jacobsen averaging 6.6 ppg and 4.9 rpg. It's hard to see this Arizona State team pulling off the upset on the road agains Utah, one of the hottest teams in the conference. The lack of size in the front court combined with losing a bench player this week, leads me to believe Utah should be able to wear the Sun Devils down, especially in the post.
If all goes well on Thursday and Utah takes care of Arizona State, there is a highly anticipated, national televised Pac-12 showdown awaiting them on Saturday afternoon. Utah will take on no. 9 Arizona (22-6, 10-5). Arizona was the hottest team in the conference and winner of six straight heading into Wednesday night. Colorado scored a 75-72 upset in Boulder however, dropping the Wildcats even with the Utes in the Pac-12 standings. Logic would say a team as talented as Arizona isn't likely to lose back to back games, but Arizona has had a tendency to lose in pairs this season. Back in the beginning of January, the Wildcats dropped a pair of road games to the LA schools and later in January, Arizona lost back to back games again to Cal and Oregon. Hopefully that pattern holds true this weekend, as this looks to be a tough matchup for Utah.
This will be the first meeting this season between the two teams and the stakes care high. With Oregon a half game ahead of both teams, Saturday's game serves as an elimination game of sorts for both teams in terms of staying in contention for the regular season Pac-12 championship. Obviously Oregon would have to drop at least one of their remaining four games for either school to have a shot.
A big reason Utah could struggle in this game is the front court of Arizona. The Wildcats boast one of the better front courts Utah will have seen, led by 6-9 forward Ryan Anderson and 7-0 senior Kaleb Tarczewski. Both players are long and athletic, with Anderson garnering some attention as a Pac-12 player of the year candidate. The Utes have struggled against athletic front courts this season such as Oregon (lost twice) and Colorado where Jakob Poeltl managed only six points and Utah squeaked out a two-point win. Arizona is also a great rebounding team, ranking 20th in the country compared to Utah at 109th. In the backcourt Gabe York and Allonzo Trier lead the charge, with York shooting 42.3% from three. If York is hitting and Utah is getting beat on the boards down low, it could be trouble for Utah.
On the flip side, Utah is definitely the best team Arizona will have faced on the road this season. Coming into this week's road trip many Arizona fans were saying they were glad they were able to get the "easier" team out of the way first in Colorado. Now that Colorado has beaten them, what does that mean for Saturday? I suspect we'll see a fired up veteran Arizona team desperate to not get swept on the road. Utah is 0-9 against Arizona since joining the Pac-12, so Utah veterans like Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge are also hungry for their first win against the Wildcats in what may be their final chance.
This game should come down to the battle of the bigs. Poeltl hasn't had the best of games against formiddable big men like Josh Scott of Colorado and Oregon's frontcourt. This will be Poeltl's chance to showcase his dominance in a game where everyone is watching against a prestigous Arizona program. If Poeltl has a big game, it is hard to see Utah losing in the Huntsman Center, where they have lost just once this season. If Arizona is able to hold Poeltl in check, Arizona has the overall talent advantage to get the win on the road.
It's a big week for Utah basketball and it kicks off tonight at 7pm MT at the Huntsman Center. Tonight's game will be televised Pac-12 networks. On Saturday, tip off is noon with TV coverage on ESPN.