In what can only be described as an incredible turn of events, the Utah Utes are suddenly in solo second place in the Pac-12 conference standings. There have been several times where it seemed like a good bet to just give up the Utes season completely, and every single time, Utah has managed to turn it around to an extent.
There was the time when Utah started off the season by losing half their nonconference games, including losses to mid-major programs like Hawaii and BYU. There was the moment Utah lost to Arizona and Washington, giving the appearance they wouldn’t be able to compete with elite Pac-12 competition. Luckily, the Pac-12 solved this by not having any elite teams. Then Utes blew two straight games at home against Oregon which seemed to sink their chances of finishing in the Top-4 in the conference. Three games later and the Utes are in solo second with six games left on the schedule.
That’s the type of season that Utah is having, they’re good enough to compete with anyone on their schedule, and then fall into periodic stretches of inconsistency and poor decision making that destroy their chances for a game or two. If they can maintain their high level of play from their last three games, suddenly the Utes become more realistic contenders to win the Pac-12 tournament.
Most of the inconsistency has been credited to youth throughout the course of the season, and there’s good reason for that. Utah has drastically improved during the season as the younger players have gotten more playing time and stepped up and contributed more. Timmy Allen regularly scores in double digits now, Both Gach has become a quality offensive option, and despite quiet nights on Thursday, Donnie Tillman and Riley Battin have been reliable contributors. These players are a huge reason why Utah plays well, but the real key for Utah playing consistently well for the rest of the season is their upperclassman.
Against Arizona, the Utes scored a total of 83 points. 55 of those points came from three players on the roster: Sedrick Barefield, Parker Van Dyke, and Jayce Johnson. Van Dyke played his best game of the season, scoring 23 points on seven made 3-pointers. He also shot two more free throws, bringing his season total to four. So that’s cool.
Johnson also played what could be argued as his best game of the season. After getting sauced by Chase Jeter in the first half, he scored 17 points in the second half and embarrassed Arizona down low. Somehow, they couldn’t stop him.
Barefield shot the ball pretty poorly this game, but still scored 15 points to go with six assists.
This is the true to key to Utah staying consistent. Can their upperclassmen continue to play well and carry the team to success? Utah has only lost one game the entire season where at least two of these three scored in double digits. That loss came against Oregon in a game which Utah turned the ball over 17 times and Barefield shot 25 percent from the field while scoring his 16 points.
In fact, the Utes have never lost a game where Parker Van Dyke scored in double digits.
The only time the Utes have won a game when Barefield scored in single digits was against Mississippi Valley State, the second worst team in the entire nation in NET ranking.
The Utes can survive off nights from their underclassmen and still win games. Timmy Allen has scored in single digits nine times this season, and Utah has a winning record in those games. Utah has won as many conference games with Donnie Tillman scoring in single digits as they have with him scoring in double figures.
It is the upperclassmen, and specifically the trio of Barefield, Van Dyke, and Johnson that will determine how successful the rest of the Utes season is. The Arizona game was the first conference game this season where all three have scored at least ten points. And it made a huge difference for the Utes. If those three can maintain a high level of play, there’s no reason Utah can’t compete with anyone in the Pac-12 the rest of the season. Team Rankings currently gives the Utes a 10 percent chance of making the NCAA tournament. If Barefield, Johnson, and Van Dyke maintain a high level of play, the odds of that will be much higher for the Utes. At the very least, the wins will be a lot more enjoyable, like the one against Arizona.
The win against Arizona last night was certainly one that felt good for Utah. Yes, Arizona has not been having a good season by any standards, but Utah has historically struggled against the Wildcats, so any win against them is a success. This was only the second time since joining the Pac-12 that Utah has defeated the Wildcats.
I would compare beating Arizona last night to the end of the movie Hot Rod, which is easily one of the greatest movies of all time. For those unfamiliar with the movie, the basic premise of the movie is that Andy Samberg’s character, Rod, does a bunch of stunts to try and help his step-dad, Frank, pay for a heart replacement surgery. That sounds very altruistic of Rod, but in reality, he wants Frank to get better so that Rod can defeat him in hand-to-hand combat and earn his respect as a man. This story line is the reason we get this truly immortal line:
Ultimately (Spoiler Alert), Frank does recover enough so that he and Rod can fight it out. This leads us to one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. I honestly have no idea why Hot Rod didn’t win an Oscar, which one again proves that the Oscars are dumb.
For those confused by the end, the final move Rod performs on Frank is an attaack that always causes the victim to, uh, lose control of their bowels. Like I said, this is a fantastic movie.
Anyway, Utah beating Arizona this year is very similar to Rod finally defeating Frank. Rod was a perennially loser against Frank for most of his life, so the victory at the end was a dramatic way to end the movie. Ignore the fact that Frank literally just had massive heart replacement surgery. Or that Frank was already 40 years older than Rod in the first place. Or that in order to win, Rod still got his hands barbecued on the grill, received a throwing star to the chest, and ruined the family barbecue. He still got his victory. And that’s all that matters.
It’s the same for the Utes win last night. We’re going to ignore the fact that Arizona is on their worst losing streak since 1984. We won’t acknowledge that Arizona was missing one of their best players in Brandon Williams. We will refuse to care that that Arizona is currently 10th in the Pac-12 standings.
Instead, we will delight in Jayce Johnson recording a double-double and scoring 17 points against a former Top 40 recruit. We will wildly celebrate every time Parker Van Dyke hits an improbable 3-pointer and leads all Utah players in scoring. And we will continue to be petty, just as one of the students in the student section was when he held up sign directed at Arizona that simply said, “You’re under FBI investigation”. A win is a win, and a win against the team from Tucson will always be sweet for Utah.
In the words of another legend, “It don’t matter if you win by and inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.”
Now let’s see what Utah can do to keep winning and look forward to next game on the Utes’ schedule: a matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Arizona State fits the mold of nearly every team in the Pac-12 team this year: they have a lot of talent, but they haven’t lived up to expectations. Prior to last week, Arizona State was basically the one Pac-12 team, besides Washington, experts were giving a shot at making the Pac-12 tournament as an at-large bid. In the last two weeks, Arizona State has gotten destroyed by Washington State at home and then lost to Colorado on Wednesday night on the road.
The confusing part for the Sun Devils is that sandwiched in between those two losses, they defeated Washington pretty soundly, handing the Huskies the first loss in conference play. For all the inconsistency Utah has had all year, ASU has matched that inconsistency with higher highs and lower lows.
In terms of NET ranking, the Sun Devils have four Quadrant-I wins on the season (wins against a Top-30 opponent at home, Top-50 at a neutral site, Top-70 on the road). Those four wins are two more than any other Pac-12 team has had this season. However, they also have two Quadrant-IV losses (losing to teams ranked 161-353 at home, 201-353 at a neutral site, 241-353 on the road). ASU is still on the bubble this year because they have been able to beat good teams like Washington and Kansas, but they’re also incredibly to prone to losing to teams with less than stellar reputations.
Utah handed ASU a Quadrant-III loss earlier in the season when they beat the Sun Devils 96-86 in Tempe to open up Pac-12 play. The Utes were down by as many as 17 in the first half of the game but came back to win easily in the second half. The Utes made their comeback by shooting 30 3s during the game, and they made 16 of them. The Utes shot better from behind the 3-point line than they did inside of it. Nearly half of the Utes scoring came from two players, Barefield has=d 24 and Tillman had 22 on the night. Meanwhile, the rest of the team combined for the other 50 points.
Arizona State is still sitting at fourth place in the conference standings, so this game will be crucial to the conference standings. A win for Utah would all but secure Utah as a Top-4 seed going into the conference tournament and give them a significant shot at the No. 2 seed. A loss to Arizona State would bring the Sun Devils and Utes into a tie in the conference standings, leaving them either tied for second or tied for third depending on what Oregon State does in their game against Oregon.
Arizona State and their offense runs almost completely through their two starting guards: Remy Martin and Luguentz Dort. Martin is the point guard and drives the team on offense. He leads ASU players with 5.1 assists per game while also putting up 12.9 points per game. Dort is the main scorer for the team. As a freshman, he’s scoring 16.4 points per game. Dort hasn’t been consistent the entire season, but he’s played some excellent basketball the last few games, scoring 15, 22, 15, and 21 points in that stretch. His biggest weakness offensively is his 3-point shot as he’s under 30 percent from deep for the season.
ASU doesn’t shoot the ball particularly well as a whole. They’re below nation average in 2-point, 3-point, and free throw shooting percentage as a team. The Sun Devils make up for it by playing with the second fastest tempo of any Pac-12 school. They also have a strong defense that is excellent and defending the interior.
Opponents of the Sun Devils have only shot 40 percent on the season, which is good for the 33rd best rate in the entire nation. As the Utes showed in their first matchup with the Sun Devils, the best way to expose to the ASU defense is to jack up a lot of 3s. Teams make a lot of 3-pointers against the Sun Devils, 9.1 per game. With a Utah team that has shooting the ball well for these last few games, that will be a point of attack for the offense.
ASU also matches one of Utah’s biggest weaknesses, the turnover game. The Sun Devils are turning the ball over 14 times a game, which is almost completely even with Utah’s 13.8 turnovers per game on the season. Both teams will turn the ball over a significant amount during this game, that can basically be accepted as fact, but the team that does better at taking care of the ball will receive a sizeable advantage.
Arizona State has been a confusing team all year. They have showed up for their biggest games of the season and played poorly against lower quality opponents on their schedule. At the beginning of the season, Utah would have been considered one of those lower quality opponents, but now the Utes are playing to maintain solo second place in the Pac-12. Defeating the Sun Devils would be a quality win for the Utes and add to their resume and their security in the conference standings. The Utes aren’t a team that can be taken lightly anymore, the question is whether or not Arizona State has figured that out.