After weeks of fretting about the Pac-12 conference standings, where Utah stands in the rankings, and what games they need to win, ultimately the season is all going to come down to the last three games of the season. At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.
After splitting the series against the Washington schools on the road, Utah still controls their own destiny in securing one of the Top-4 spots in the conference. The Utes are 9-6 and sit at fourth place overall. The separation between second and ninth in the conference is only three games. The Utes have a realistic chance at stealing the No. 2 seed if things go well and a shot at somewhere around the No. 8 seed if things go poorly.
Because of the variety of positions Utah could still end up, the perception of Utah’s season as a whole will largely be determined by these last three games. If Utah maintains a Top-4 seed, the season will be remembered as one where Utah dramatically outperformed preseason expectations, and there will be lots of hope heading into next season.
If Utah ends up tumbling outside of the Top-4, or even worse, outside of the Top-6, this year will be remembered as a fairly pedestrian season. To use some technical terminology, this will be considered a meh season if things end poorly.
The perception of the program is going to be something that is important to Larry Krystkowiak moving forward. Unless Utah can find a way to win the Pac-12 tournament, they won’t be participating in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row. Fans have started to voice displeasure with this, with fan support of Coach K taking a noticeable dip in the last couple of seasons.
Under Krystkowiak, the Utes have participated in the NCAA tournament twice, with their best trip taking them to the Sweet 16. The Utes best finish in the conference has been second, and they have yet to win a Pac-12 regular season or tournament title. However, Utah has been in the Top-4 in the conference each season since the 2014-2015 season. Coach K has Utah recruiting at a higher level than the program ever has in the past. Utah will have four of their 16 best recruits ever (according to 247) joining the team next season.
Things are looking good for the program in the future, but fan support often doesn’t look that far ahead. A large reason why is the amount of money Coach K is getting paid. Krystkowiak is making $3.4 million per year as the Utes head coach. That’s No. 8 among all college basketball coaches, only trailing the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, and Bill Self. Krystkowiak is the second highest paid coach in the Pac-12, trailing only Sean Miller.
Krystkowiak deserves plenty of credit for inheriting a program in complete shambles and turning it into a consistent contender within the Pac-12 in only four years. But between his salary and a few previous successful seasons, finishing fourth in the conference instead of seventh won’t be considered a strong season in Salt Lake City forever.
Expectations were lower than normal this season, but they’re going to be rising fast. A strong finish to this season will earn patience from the fans, but if Utah takes a nosedive at the end, the amount of leeway the program receives next season is going to be noticeably shorter. Even if the NCAA tournament is out of play, some wins at the end of the season will go a long way towards improving fan perception of Coach K and the program in the future
This week, the Utes have a huge matchup against their so-called “Pac-12 rival” as they travel to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes.
This game will have a major impact on the Top-4 standings within the Pac-12. Colorado still has an outside shot at the No. 4 spot, and they’ve been playing excellent basketball since a 2-6 start to conference play. However, if Utah can find a way to win this game, they will eliminate Colorado from contention for a No. 4 spot and give themselves security heading into the last weekend of the season.
The No. 4 through No. 7 teams will all play each other in the next two weeks. UCLA and USC play each other this week before finishing their season on the road against the mountain schools. If Utah can win against Colorado, they will effectively have to defeat the winner of the UCLA-USC game to claim the No. 4 seed. If they can’t do that, they’ll be in some serious trouble and need some major help from the Buffs when they play to the L.A. schools.
A win against the Buffs would also leave the Utes in play for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. Without looking too far ahead, it’s easy to see how important that could be to Utah since the No. 4 seed would have to play Washington in the semifinals while the No.2 or No. 3 seed wouldn’t play Washington until the championship, if both teams made it that far. Utah has effectively demonstrated this year that they would prefer not to play Washington (or Oregon) again this season.
With so much on the line heading into the Pac-12 tournament, it’s easy to forget that this is also a rivalry game of major proportions. This is the freaking Rumble in the Rockies. A rivalry name that rolls right off the tongue and is a mainstay in every Utah and Colorado fan’s vernacular.
If you feel unprepared to invest your whole soul into this rivalry game, here are some already prepared insults that you can send to all those Buffs fans in your life who may have also forgotten to get heated about this rivalry game. You could say:
· You left the Big 12 for this league!
· You don’t have any basketball National Championships! (Utah has that 1944 National Championship, you can’t ever forget that).
· There’s no way Buffaloes is the proper plural form of buffalo. It just sounds wrong. It’s like saying mooses, gooses, or oxes. They need to change the plural of buffalo.
· Boulder will never be as cool as Denver!
· Colorado? More like Colorad-No.
· Whatever the heck this is from the Boulder Wikipedia page (the first one):
· 2018 Pac-12 South Champs! (Applies in all situations really. Try mentioning it repeatedly during job interviews.)
· Fetch You!
Those are just a few cleverly designed insults that could be used against the biggest rival Utah has in athletics. It’s weird that Utah has to travel outside of the state to find a rival, but that’s just the way it is, and things have never been different.
As fun as it is to joke about the Utah-Colorado rivalry, this is one of the higher stakes regular season games the teams have ever played. Very rarely have the teams met up with conference seeding for both teams on the line. Now, both teams are fighting for a positive end to their season and for a crucial first-round bye. At the very least, there’s no reason why this game shouldn’t be highly entertaining for all those involved.
The first matchup between these two teams was entertaining for Utah fans in the first half and for Colorado fans in the second half. To put that game in perspective, the Utes were outscored by 13 points in the second half, and they still won 78-69.
It was an ugly first half for the Buffs, who were playing without their point guard and best player, McKinley Wright. Wright sat out the Utah game with a torn labrum and a dislocated shoulder. Wright has played for the Buffs in every game since, not because his shoulder has healed, but because he is choosing to gut it out and play. Wright is going to need surgery the second the season ends, but as for now, he’s playing some of his best basketball of the season.
Wright was shut down in the Buffs previous game against Washington, scoring only four points, but before that he was a major offensive threat. In the Buffs five prior games, he was averaging 16.6 points per game on 54 percent shooting. With Wright on the court, the Buffs will have a lot more help on offense than they did in their first meeting with the Utes.
Another threat for Colorado will be 6’7” Tyler Bey. Bey has been the second-best rebounder in the conference on the season, grabbing 9.4 boards per game, but his offensive game has been wildly inconsistent. That appears to be turning around now. Bey dropped 20 points against Washington of all teams, and 22 when the Buffs played Arizona State.
Bey is prone to some miserable offensive performances though. He scored two points against Utah on 1-7 shooting, and he has three other games in conference play where he scored less than five points in the game. When Bey is playing well offensively, an average Colorado offensive suddenly becomes much more dangerous. This is evidenced by the five-game win streak the team had this season, their best ever in Pac-12 play.
Colorado is strong defensively in two areas, 3-point shooting and defensive rebounding. Teams are only shooting 32.4 percent against the Buffs from 3, which is good for second-best in the Pac-12. Opponents shoot a lot of 3s against them, 21.5 per game, they just aren’t making very many of them.
That was not the case for the Utes when they faced the Buffs. The Utes shot 40.9 percent from deep, though a lot of those 3s came after Colorado turned the ball over. The Buffs had 11 turnovers in the first half of the game, and then didn’t turn the ball over at all in the second half. Consequently, Utah made eight 3-pointers in the first half, and only one in the second half. Colorado has a much stiffer 3-point defense when playing in the half-court, and Utah struggled to exploit that.
In terms of rebounding, Colorado is a top-tier defensive rebounding team. Led by Tyler Bey, the Buffs rank No. 7 in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Of all possible defensive rebound chances, the Buffs secure 78.8 percent of them. Utah is a decent offensive rebounding team (No. 105 nationally), but they will be severely limited in their second chance points against the Buffs.
Utah and Colorado basically play completely opposite schemes on the offensive end. Colorado is one of the poorest shooting 3-point teams in the country, shooting 32.4 percent, which is also the percentage teams shoot against them. They are a dominant shooting team from inside the arc, shooting 53.5 percent on their 2-point shots. Of the four Colorado players averaging double-digit points on the season, three of them shoot above 50 percent on 2-point shots. However, only one of them is shooting better than 34 percent from the 3-point line.
Utah is going to be content to let the Buffs try to beat them with their shooting. Colorado scored 28 points in the paint against Utah, and Utah would like to minimalize that in this game. The Buffs struggled the most during the first half, and they only made three shots from outside the paint, shooting 21 percent on jumpers. When Colorado began to make jumpers in the second half, that’s when they began to catch up to Utah.
For the Utes, they were largely carried by Timmy Allen and Sedrick Barefield against the Buffs. Barefield had 22 points while making five 3s, while Allen had 21 points and shot 66 percent from the field. No one else on the team had more than seven points.
There were some positive signs for Barefield in the Utes last game against Washington State. Barefield scored 33 points while shooting 10-19 from the field. It tied his highest points scored in a game for the season, and it was seven higher than his next highest points scored in a Pac-12 game. It was also the first time that Barefield has shot better than 50 percent from the field since January 24, when Utah beat Stanford.
That increase in production from Barefield is going to be necessary to Utah’s success as long as Timmy Allen remains sidelined with a back injury. Allen has now sat out two straight games, and it is still unknown whether or not he will return this week. Allen was the second leading scorer against Colorado, and the Utes are going to need someone to step up without him.
The player most likely to step up is Donnie Tillman. Tillman has started in place of Allen in Utah’s last two games. He struggled mightily against Washington and was shutout on points, but he returned to form against Washington State by scoring 16 points.
The biggest difference between having Allen in the lineup versus out is that Utah somehow finds a way to shoot more 3-pointers. Against the Cougars, Utah threw up 35 3s during the game and made 45 percent of them. Tillman is actually listed as an inch taller than Allen, but Tillman shoots 3s far more often than Allen does. Allen has only attempted a 3-pointer four times all year, while Tillman has shot 102 of them.
With Tillman likely to be in the starting lineup again, Utah will continue to attempt a large number of 3s, only this time without an inside presence in Allen to space to the floor. That wasn’t a problem against Washington State, but with the Utes facing a better 3-point defense, they’re going to need everyone to be shooting well in this game.
Parker Van Dyke is continuing to set the world on fire with his jump shot, so it remains to be seen whether Barefield and Tillman will continue to play as well as they did against Washington State. If they do, Utah’s offense will be fine. If not, it could be a long night for the offense without a reliable post-threat. Besides Allen, Utah’s big men were largely a nonfactor against Colorado. Johnson, Battin, and Topalovic only managed 11 points combined.
If Allen is healthy enough to play, that will improve Utah’s chances greatly. Without him, the offensive burden will rest almost completely on the guards. The Utes will need a big night from Barefield and either Van Dyke or Tillman. Depending on how the defense plays, that should be enough to keep Utah in this game.
There’s a lot at stake for Utah in this game, with a Top-4 seed still on the line and Utah controlling whether or not they’ll be the ones to claim it. There are also a lot of questions marks too. The status of Timmy Allen and Utah’s inconsistent play make this game against Colorado completely up in the air. But in heated rivalry game such as this one, no one is ever completely sure what will happen.