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Utah Basketball: Reliving the UCLA Game and Looking Forward to the Arizona Game

The Utes pulled off a remarkable comeback that we should take some time to enjoy a little more. They also have a big game against Arizona this week, a team that has traditionally had the upper hand against Utah.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Man, that UCLA game was crazy. Utah came back from their largest deficit all season, 22 points with 12 minutes to play, to beat the Bruins in Pasadena, 93-92. It was a fantastic win for Utah, one that was important for their conference standing, and also just for the morale of the team and fans. Of course, coming back from 22 means that you have to be down 22 to begin with, so the game was a real roller coaster of emotion. The high was definitely worth the many low points though.

Before we move on to talking about the Arizona game happening this week, why don’t we take a little journey back to Pasadena together, and enjoy the UCLA game again. This time, you already know how it ends too, so you don’t have to scream at the TV like many of us are prone to doing. Instead, you can laugh at the lows and still greatly enjoy the highs. Let’s relive one of the greatest comebacks in Utah history:

First Half

20:00 – The announcers for the game are Joe Davis and Doug Gottlieb. They were very fun for the entire night, so they deserve some recognition here. I’m also going to reference several things they said during the broadcast for entertainment purposes.

19:10 – Jalen Hill gets a wide-open dunk to start off the scoring for UCLA. It will not be the last time he has a dunk during the game, but it will be one of the few times he’s not dunking over a Utah player.

18:26 – Utah has their first turnover of the game on a Timmy Allen travel, so take a drink of Dr. Pepper (or whatever it is people use for drinking games, I’m pretty sure it’s Dr. Pepper).

17:21 – After missing their first four shots, the Utes get their first basket of the night with a layup from Allen. Utah started all three of their freshmen again. Allen and Riley Battin are regular starters now, and Both Gach replaced Parker Van Dyke in the lineup for the second game in a row.

16:22 – Utah ties the game up at 8-8 on a Battin 3-pointer. It will be the last time that Utah is close to the lead for roughly the next 35 minutes of game play.

14:28 – As UCLA breaks out the press defense, we get probably the biggest understatement of the game from announcer Davis, “Utah has struggled breaking the press defense this year.” I would agree with that statement.

12:06 – It’s mentioned that Moses Brown of UCLA hasn’t played yet. The freshman was benched to start the game because of a coach’s decision when he was late for practices. This will become more relevant later. Gottlieb gives us some sage advice that when, “you sit on your butt, all of the sudden, your brain starts to activate.” If this is true, I wonder why I feel dumber after sitting on my butt watching Netflix for several hours.

10:48 – Utah, in their quest to find as many different ways to turn the ball over as possible, gets called for a 3-second violation. I completely forgot they still called those in any level of basketball. Also, UCLA is shooting 70 percent so far. That sounds bad. You’ll notice that there won’t be many positive things to say about Utah until there’s about five minutes left in the game.

9:08 – Utah ends a five-minute scoring drought with a Battin turnaround jumper. The Utes are now trailing 22-13. The announcers begin telling a story of how Battin lived in a shed during high school. The shed was in the backyard of his house though, so it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

5:18 – Barefield dribbles the ball out of bounds, making it the seventh turnover of the game for Utah. The Utes have a -3.6-turnover margin per game, which means they turn the ball over 3.6 more times than their opponent each game. That’s 342nd in the entire nation and last in the Pac-12. Has anyone told you that turnovers are a problem for the Utes?

Also, the announcers engage in a debate on whether or not UCLA is still a premier college basketball coaching job. The answer there would be no, it’s no longer a premier job.

4:48 – Timmy Allen hits nice turnaround jumper to get Utah within 13. Gottlieb proceeds to talk about how Allen is going to be a very good player and then compliments Allen on having a “big butt” and citing it as a reason why Allen will be so good. I think professional athletics is the only profession where having a big butt will make you more money. Yep, the only one. Don’t question this. Smile and nod and let’s move on.

0:00 – Utah got within 10 points with two minutes left in the first half and then promptly gave up two alley-oops to Jalen Hill, somehow got another 3-second violation, and then went into the half down 17. UCLA is shooting 69 percent and they have 32 points in the paint alone. Utah has 32 points in total. Utah already has nine turnovers to UCLA’s four. As an optimistic Utah fan, I debate about switching to the Duke-Virginia game or just going and listening to the Sound of Silence on repeat for the next hour instead of watching the game. Hello darkness my old friend…

Second Half

18:43 – Utah tries playing the press defense this time to show UCLA how it feels. UCLA promptly gets an easy lob and dunk. Apparently, the press is a disaster on both offense and defense for the Utes.

16:02 – A play by play of the last minute for Utah: Jayce Johnson goes for a dunk and gets rejected by Jalen Hill. Battin gets the offensive rebound and promptly turns the ball over. UCLA gets a fast break and Jaylen Hands has a clear layup, forcing Allen to foul him. Allen gets called for a flagrant foul because when he fouled Hands, he hit him in the head. Hands promptly makes both free throws and then UCLA gets the ball again. Cody Riley makes a layup on that possession and now Utah is down 20.

15:26 – At this point, I hate the Matthew McConaughey commercial where he plays pool and then drives away in a Lincoln with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul. I’ve seen it a thousand times and it still makes no sense. Also, what do you think McConaughey does with the Lincoln they give him? Because there’s no way in heck he drives it. That is all.

13:03 – Utah tries playing press defense and this time UCLA makes a wide open three. Utah follows this up with a turnover which UCLA turns into a breakaway dunk for Hands. Utah is now down 22, with the score 67-45, which will be the most they will trail for the rest of the game.

12:15 – Gottlieb makes a comment that it’s crazy that every single one of UCLA’s conference games has been a blowout. Van Dyke bricks a 3-pointer off the side of the backboard giving you no reason to question him saying that.

9:40 – Parker Van Dyke is starting to make shots, he’s hit two 3s in a row for Utah. The announcers start talking about Van Dyke serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint in Birmingham, Alabama. They attempt to hype up Birmingham as a great place to go because of things such as: amazing sweet tea, minor league baseball, delicious barbecue, and great college athletics. Unfortunately, as a missionary, the only one of those things Van Dyke was able to enjoy was delicious barbecue. At least when he goes back to visit, he can enjoy the other things now. Except for the sweet tea.

5:52 – UCLA started 12-13 from the free throw line. They currently have a 17-point lead on Utah, the score is 80-63. Both of those things will soon change.

3:58 – Utah cuts the lead to 12 on a Johnson layup right as the announcers start talking about how UCLA has been really good at holding onto leads this season. Also, they keep referring to Johnson’s headband as a Cobra Kai headband, which is amazing. You could tell me that Johnson was one of the kids in the Cobra Kai from the original Karate Kid movie, and I probably wouldn’t question it despite the movie coming out 13 years before he was born.

2:51 – Utah tries the press defense for a third time. It almost forces a UCLA turnover. Instead, Utah commits a foul. UCLA hits both free throws and leads 83-70.

2:31 – Utah starts playing the foul game. They foul Cody Riley, who misses the front end of the one-and-one. Donnie Tillman tries to dunk on a UCLA defender and send him all the way to the earth’s core but misses it. Battin gets the rebound and hits the layup. The lead is under ten for the first time since it was 19-11. UCLA leads 83-75.

1:27 – UCLA has missed three of their last four free throws. UCLA is a 61 percent free shooting team on the year. After starting so well, apparently, they’re trying to hit their average of 61 percent. On the other end, Gach makes one of two free throws to cut the lead to six, 84-78.

0:50 – UCLA throws up a brick on their possession. The Utes get the rebound, sprint down the court, and Van Dyke drains a deep 3. Suddenly and miraculously it’s a one possession game, 84-81.

0:36 – Gach fouls the UCLA freshman, David Singleton. Singleton hits one of two free throws, making the lead four. Barefield then takes the ball up the court and fires up a step-back, contested 3-pointer while only two seconds into the shot clock. Airball. At this point, it feels like that’s the dagger for Utah. Not a smart play. On the broadcast, you can here Coach K shout, “NO!” It almost sounds like a Homer Simpson, “Doh!”

0:28 – It doesn’t seem like UCLA actually wants to win. Jaylen Hands makes two free throws after Utah fouls him. However, they follow that up by allowing a Battin layup. Battin proceeds to steal the inbounds pass and at the same time gets fouled by the Bruins. Battin tries to return the gift by missing the first of the 1-and-1, but Allen gets an offensive board and makes a layup. Two-point game, 87-85.

0:16 – UCLA attempts to aim for the head this time to kill Utah. The Utes trap Prince Ali after the inbounds pass and he’s basically dead in the water. However, he gets away with a blatant travel and basically steps his way out of the trap, leading to a UCLA fast break and wide-open dunk for Cody Riley. Down four with 16 seconds left, now the Utes are surely dead, right?

0:07 – LOL psych. Gach hits a Steph Curry range 3-pointer to cut the lead to one. That was pure. Utah immediately fouls Singleton again. Singleton makes both. With a three-point lead, UCLA fouls Barefield so the Utes can’t take a 3. Seems smart. Barefield makes both so it’s a one-point game again.

0:06 – UCLA inbounds to Singleton, who is immediately fouled. Singleton bricks the first one. Moses Malone, the UCLA center who has been benched all game for showing up late to practices, gets subbed in for his first action of the entire game. Singleton hits the second free throw. Two-point game. Six seconds left and…

0:00 – Let’s go to the video:

Heck yeah.

This play was remarkably similar to the one Villanova ran in the 2016 National Championship game to beat North Carolina. They hit the trail man who had space to take a deep three, and it worked.

Other great moments from the celebration:

Gottlieb screaming, “YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” after the shot went in, because I definitely did the same.

Barefield hugging Van Dyke and screaming “I love you boy!” over and over again.

This image right here:

This lady’s face:

This guy, who must be a UCLA fan, because he straight stiffed Van Dyke as he went in for the high-five. That was cold blooded. Show some respect man.

This video is my personal favorite:

What a game. I’m ready for another one.

Looking forward to the game with Arizona this Thursday, the Utes have had almost no success against the Wildcats since joining the Pac-12. The Utes have only won one game against the Wildcats in the 14 times they’ve played against each other as conference foes. The one win came from this clutch Brandon Taylor 3-pointer in one of the loudest games that the Huntsman Center has ever seen.

This year is different though, not really because of who Utah is, but more because Arizona is in shambles right now.

The Wildcats are on a five-game losing streak, their worst losing streak since the 1983-1984 season. They got absolutely destroyed by both USC and UCLA on the road, losing those games by 23 and 21 points respectively. They followed that up with an understandable loss in overtime against rival Arizona State in Tempe. However, their struggles continued by getting swept at home by the Washington schools. Losing to Washington this year is no big deal, and Arizona actually played them tough; the concerning loss is the one to Washington State, who is the second worst team in the conference.

Things are not looking good for the Wildcats at all right now. At 84th in NET, the Wildcats are going to be “lucky” if they make the NIT this year. Arizona hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2012, but this year their only chance of going back to the Big Dance is to win the Pac-12 tournament. To be fair though, that statement is true for every team in the conference except for Washington right now.

So, what has Arizona playing their worst basketball of the decade? There’s been plenty of struggles on the court and also turmoil surrounding the program off the court. Starting with on the court, Sean Miller had the less than desirable challenge of having to replace all five of the Arizona starters from last season. Last year’s starters either graduated, were the first pick in the NBA draft, or declared early for the NBA draft and promptly went undrafted. Arizona has tried to make up for the loss of production mainly through plugging transfers into the starting lineup and using lesser role-players from a season ago in a larger starting role.

The Wildcats also have plenty of turmoil surrounding the program off the court. They recently fired assistant coach Mark Phelps for messing with the academic transcripts of former recruit, Shareef O’Neal. The NCAA is also launching an official investigation into the program and Sean Miller as a result of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball from last season. The case of Christian Dawkins, the main bagman for all the corruption, is going to trial now, which could lead to evidence coming out against the program, further increasing the pressure Arizona feels right now. If any of it portrays Arizona or Miller in a negative light, they could be facing even more problems. The NCAA is largely a joke, but if the FBI has got wiretaps on you, there’s not much you can do there to prove your innocence.

All of this adds up to the first five-game losing streak that Arizona has had in 35 years. And Utah is looking to add on to it. Utah is coming off of the road sweep of USC and UCLA. Last week got them right back into the thick of things in terms of contending (for second place) in the Pac-12. They sit at 7-4 in conference play and are tied with Arizona State and Oregon State for the that second place spot.

After choking away the games with Oregon and Oregon State, it’s amazing to see Utah get their season back on track so quickly. This leads us to one of the most curious elements of the Utes’ season, they suck when they play at home. Okay, maybe they don’t suck when they play at the Huntsman Center, but the Utes have definitely played a lot better on the road then they have at home. Utah has two road sweeps already this season and doesn’t have a single home sweep other than beating Colorado at home. Maybe it’s the altitude.

Of the ten times that Utah has lost this season, three have been on the road, three have been at a neutral site, and four of the losses have been at home. One of the neutral sites was against BYU at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, so that one was basically a home game as well. The highest quality win Utah has at home all season based on NET ranking was Colorado, a team that currently is 79th. It’s confusing, but not a trend that’s likely to continue the entire season.

This game against the Wildcats is the first instance all season where the Utes will play a team they’ve already played before in the season. That game was in Tucson, and it was a close one. Arizona won by three after the game went to overtime. Both teams scored 36 points in the first half and 36 points in the second half, before Arizona finally got the advantage in OT to win 84-81.

One of the major difference makers in that first game was Sedrick Barefield fouling out of the game. Barefield played one of his best games of the season against the Wildcats, scoring 26 points on 59 percent shooting and adding four assists as well. However, he fouled out with 1:44 left in the second half, and the Utes had to make do without him in overtime. If Barefield had been around for the full game, he probably would have had over 30 points and been able to carry the offensive load in overtime as well.

Overall, the Utes offense was great against the Wildcats. The team shot 56.6 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from 3-point range. So, you’ll never guess what the Utes downfall in the game was, turnovers! There’s no way you guessed that. Utah turned the ball over 18 times against the Wildcats. Utah shot the ball a lot better than the Wildcats, but the 18 turnovers kept Arizona in the game. They also committed 22 fouls, which allowed Arizona to shoot 30 free throws. That is also not ideal.

Playing Arizona tough in Tucson is a good sign for the Utes going into this game. Utah’s two best streaks of basketball were this past week and the road trip to the Arizona schools. Utah should have no reason to fear the Wildcats, especially because the Wildcats have been trash for the last three weeks. There’s also one major difference between this game and the last game against Arizona: they’re missing one of their best players, Brandon Williams.

Williams has been out for the last three games for the Wildcats because of a right knee injury. This has been catastrophic for the Arizona offense because he not only leads the team in assists per game, but he also was their second leading scorer at 12 PPG. In their last two games, Arizona only managed 60 points against Washington and then could only muster 55 points against Washington State. Only one other team in conference play has failed to score 70 points or more against Washington State, and that was, of course, Cal.

Williams scored 11 points against the Utes in the first matchup between these teams, but he will still be out this week. Chase Jeter was the leading scorer for the Wildcats when they played the Utes, scoring 21 points and recording a double-double, but he recently returned from injury himself. Jeter missed Arizona’s two games against the Los Angeles schools because of a back injury he suffered against Oregon State. In three games since his return, he’s averaging only 6.3 PPG. He was a complete nonfactor against Washington State going 0-4 from the field and not scoring a single point.

The other player for Arizona who scored a lot in that original game was Brandon Randolph, and he’s also struggling, and struggling is probably an understatement here. Randolph was Arizona’s best offensive player in nonconference play. He scored in double figures in every single game and consistently shot over 40 percent from the field. He was a high-volume scorer and also played efficiently.

Since conference play started, Randolph has continued to shoot at a high volume, but his make percentage has fallen off of a cliff. Randolph has only shot over 37 percent from the field twice since conference play started, and those games were against Colorado and Cal. He has five games where he has shot the ball under 30 percent from the field, and he’s taken an average of 12 shots during those games. In Arizona’s last two games, Randolph shot 15 percent from the field.

In his first game against Utah, Randolph went 7-19 from the field and 1-11 from deep. He had 21 points, but it was an ugly 21, and Utah would be fine with those percentages occurring in this game as well. But at this point, 36 percent shooting for Randolph would be considered a good shooting night.

This is the disaster that Arizona is facing right now; their most consistent offensive players, Jeter and Williams, are out or still dealing with injuries. Everyone else on the roster has been wildly inconsistent on offense. If Utah can limit Jeter’s effectiveness, and force Arizona’s guards to score, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Arizona have another highly inefficient shooting night. A lot of this comes because Arizona doesn’t move the ball particularly well. Arizona only gets 12.5 assists per game, which is well below average across the nation. If the Wildcats are taking a lot of contested shots off the dribble, that will bode well for the Utes.

On the defensive side, Arizona is slipping in their level of play as well. In their first three losses of this losing streak, Arizona gave up 80 points to USC, 90 to UCLA, and 95 to ASU. The defense was better against the Washington schools and Arizona is still ranked 51st in KenPom’s defensive rankings, but Utah’s offense played very well against Arizona in their first meeting and should be able to do so again this time around.

The biggest key will, of course, be limiting turnovers. If Utah can limit Arizona fast break points (which usually come off of turnovers) and force the Wildcats to run their half-court offense, there’s no reason to believe they will be a threat offensively. But turnovers are a way to allow inferior teams to hang around during a game. That is one of the main things Arizona does well, forcing turnovers. Teams turn the ball over 15 times a game against the Wildcats. Utah averages 14 turnovers per game already, so that doesn’t look so good for the Utes.

On the defensive end, Arizona is most vulnerable on the interior as Chase Jeter is not a great rim defender. Arizona allows teams to shoot over 51 percent from 2-point range, which is 225th in the nation. They defend the 3-point shot much better, only allowing opponents to shoot 33 percent. Utah is going to shoot 3s regardless of who they’re playing, but if they can exploit that weakness against the Wildcats, it will make their offense a lot better.

Gach will likely be starting again, and he can continue to attempt to penetrate the defense. Allen was also a force inside against UCLA. He shot 9-11 from the field and didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer. If he can replicate that again, he should feast against the Arizona defense. Barefield also exploited the Arizona interior in the previous matchup, he shot 5-9 from 3-point range but also went 5-8 from inside the arc.

All of this points to Utah being heavy favorites against the Wildcats for the first time since joining the Pac-12. But that doesn’t mean this will be an easy game for Utah. For all of the teams struggles, Arizona is loaded with talent that could break out in any given game. Seven of the guys on the roster were Top 100 recruits at one point. Utah needs to play smart in this game.

Utah is playing solid basketball right now, Arizona is not. The Utes are getting great games from their best players, the Wildcats are not. Utah is coming off of a road sweep, Arizona is on a five-game losing streak. The Utes are tied for second in the conference, Arizona is tied for seventh. Utah just had one of the greatest comebacks in program history, Arizona just lost to one of the worst teams in the conference at home. Utah is the home team in this game. Everything points to Utah being the favorite in this game and winning this game. But, if there’s one thing we’ve come to know about Utah this season, once you think you’ve got them figured out, they do something completely unexpected.