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Utah vs. Washington: A Game Preview

The bad news: The Utes are playing the best team in the Pac-12. The good news: Utah is on the road.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another couple games of unpredictable Utah basketball. The Utes have mastered putting themselves into a strong position within the Pac-12 only to lose all the ground they made up within a week. It’s a frustrating cycle, but not one that is all that surprising at this stage in the season.

The Utes are coming off of another home loss, this time falling to Arizona State 98-87 in one of the most painful basketball games anyone has ever had to witness. A simple recap: there were 47 fouls called and 60 total free throws shot in a 40-minute game. It was a nightmare, and not just because Utah lost that game.

This week, Utah gets to play at venues where the team has been the most comfortable all season, anywhere but the Huntsman Center. The Utes’ incomprehensible struggles at home continued in their mediocre showing against the Sun Devils. Luckily for Utah, they don’t have to play at home again until their last two games of the season. Their next three games are on the road. They will face Washington, Washington State, and Colorado in the coming two weeks.

None of those games look particularly easy. Colorado and Washington State have had mid-season surges and have looked like top tier teams in the conference in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Washington continues to dominate the Pac-12 field. With a three-game lead and only six games to play, Washington could potentially wrap up the conference title with two wins this week. If Utah was playing at home this week, there would be great cause for alarm for the Utes.

Instead, they get to take their talents on the road. In conference play, the Utes are now 3-4 at the Huntsman Center and 5-1 on the road. The Utes are playing so much better on the road than at home this year that Larry Krystkowiak even had the team stay in a hotel Friday night to try and simulate a road game atmosphere for the team. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but who would have ever thought a coach would try to make a team more comfortable by simulating a road atmosphere when you have a home game?

The Utes have been historically bad at home for a team that is currently in the Top-4 of the conference. Since the formation of the Pac-12, no team has ever had a losing record at home and finished in the Top-4 of the conference standings. This includes the 2013-2014 season, when five teams finished tied for the No. 3 spot at 10-8. In fact, no team that finished T-4 or better in conference play ever lost more than three games at home during the regular season. The Utes have already lost four, and unless they finish the season with a home sweep of the Los Angeles schools, they will finish conference play with a losing home record.

The Utes have a chance to set Pac-12 history, but it’s hard to tell if this would go down in history as something positive or something negative. With five games left on the schedule, the Utes still control their own destiny in terms of securing one of the coveted Top-4 seeds in the Pac-12 tournament. If they do that, and the team decides every game in Las Vegas is a road game, there will be lots to be excited about in the conference tournament. With so few games left, and the Pac-12 so tightly bunched, Utah doesn’t have much margin for error left. Two of their final five games come against teams one game behind them in conference standings (USC and Colorado), one comes against the top team in the conference (Washington), and two come against wildcard teams (UCLA and Washington State).

Obviously, the best-case scenario is for Utah to win out and guarantee themselves a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Though based on how good Washington is playing and the fact the Utah has two games left at home, that seems unlikely. Right now, the worst-case scenario for Utah, that would still give them an almost guaranteed slot in the Top-4, would be for the Utes to go 3-2 with two of those wins coming against USC and Colorado. Unless Stanford does something wild, Utah will more than likely still be in the top tier of the conference. Finishing 4-1 or 5-0 would all but guarantee Utah a spot. But anything along the lines of a 3-2 record, with a loss to either USC and Colorado, would put the Utes’ fate in the hands of the teams who are chasing them.

This brings us to the game at hand against Washington. The Huskies are considered good by national standards and considered an unstoppable juggernaut by Pac-12 standards. Washington, despite sitting at 11-1 in conference play and 20-5 overall, are still unranked in the AP Top 25 poll. They received 20 votes this week, which was good enough for the 29th spot in the rankings. Clearly people respect the Pac-12 a whole lot.

The Huskies handed the Utes their first home loss of conference play when they absolutely massacred Utah 69-53 in Salt Lake City. While the final deficit was 16 points, it probably could have been much worse for the Utes as they shot 33 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3-point range, and turned the ball over 16 times. This is what you would call a less than ideal performance.

The reason that the Huskies owned the Utes so badly is because the Huskies have a bunch of quick and long players who play a nasty 2-3 zone. Their offensive philosophy is literally to deny teams from making 3-pointers. And it has worked out well for them. Teams are only shooting 32.4 percent on 3-pointers against the Huskies. Things don’t get much better inside the arc, as the Huskies are only allowing 45.7 percent shooting on 2-pointers.

While Utah was especially disastrous against the Washington defense, it’s fair to state that nearly every team in the Pac-12 has been terrible against Washington this year. Washington has only allowed a Pac-12 team to score more than 70 points once during the conference season. It’s shocking that that is the one game the Huskies have lost in conference play, losing to Arizona State 75-62. In 12 conference games, Washington has held teams at 60 points or fewer five times. That’s two more than the next closest team, Oregon. Most of the other teams in the Pac-12 have held teams under 60 when they played the likes of Arizona and Cal. Washington has held UCLA, Utah, and Oregon under 60. They also did that to Arizona and Cal.

The magic number for Utah in this game is going to be scoring over 70 points. Utah’s defense isn’t great, so they’re going to have to make up for that by scoring at an above rate. Washington plays slow and then tries to slowly suffocate you to death with its zone defense. The Huskies have the 19th best defensive efficiency and play with the 255th fastest tempo according to KenPom. Utah needs to come up with an answer because they didn’t have one last time these teams met up in January.

As was mentioned before, Utah shot 20 percent from the 3-point range in the previous meeting with Washington. What you perhaps didn’t remember, is Utah shot 30 3s during the game. Half of Utah’s shots for the game were 3s. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Apparently, the Utes forgot this while continuing to jack up contested 3s from well behind the arc against the Huskies. They didn’t go in, and Utah got blown out.

The biggest weakness that the Utes can try to expose is the Washington offense. The Huskies don’t get a lot of assists and they don’t shoot at great clip, especially on 3-pointers. Of course, those two weaknesses the Huskies have faced this season were strengths in the first matchup with Utah. The Huskies had 16 assists, which was their third best total of the season. They also shot 40 percent from 3, which is five percent better than their season average.

Clearly, the way for Utah to win this game is if the offense shows up to play. It remains to be seen if Coach K and the team learned something from their first performance against Washington and their defense. Specifically, the guards are going to have to show up and be ready. The first matchup with Washington was a disaster for the Utah guards. Sedrick Barefield had his worst game of the season, managing six points on 2-10 shooting. Both Gach played the best of Utah’s guards, and he scored seven points on 3-9 shooting. That is going to have to change.

With Parker Van Dyke coming off the bench now and shooting better than Steph Curry during an NBA All-Star Game, hopefully he can give the Utes some offensive firepower. After that, Barefield is going to be the key to this game. Barefield has been struggling a lot lately from the field, though it hasn’t been as easily noticeable because he’s still putting up high point totals. In his last six games, Barefield is shooting the ball over 13 times a game but only making 32 percent of his shots. Those are not good numbers by any standards, and they are especially bad for the player who takes the most shots on Utah’s roster.

Utah has been able to compensate for those poor shooting numbers against the likes of USC, Arizona, and UCLA. But against better defensive teams, Utah has been exposed because of it, as illustrated by Oregon and Washington obliterating Utah while Barefield shot a combined 6-26 from the floor in those games. If Barefield figures his shooting out, Utah will have a chance, if not, the offense could be pretty painful to watch again.

In reality, if Utah is going to lose one of their next five games, this is the one they can afford to lose. It’s weird saying that Utah can afford to lose a game at this stage in the season, but as long as Utah splits this series with Washington schools, they will still be fine in the standings. Utah’s not going to catch Washington in the conference standings, and it’s far more essential Utah defeats the likes of Colorado and USC.

As for the Pac-12 and its reputation, there is no good outcome for this game. If Washington wins, nobody will care. If Washington loses, it will tarnish the resume of the one team in the Pac-12 most people consider to be good. The worst-case scenario for the Pac-12 is for Utah to win this game and throw more gas on the Pac-12 fire. Of course, this means Utah is probably going to win the game, so be ready for that.