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Staying Positive About Utah Basketball

After a rough week, here’s a list of reasons to stay positive about the Utes basketball season. Also, a preview of the game against the USC Trojans.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Well, things have not been going great lately. If you’re wondering what thing I’m referring to, that would be the University of Utah basketball team. The last has been, let’s say, far less than ideal for the Utes. On Thursday, Utah got absolutely dismantled by Oregon, a team they’ve had almost no success against since they joined the Pac-12. They followed the game up with a wildly disappointing performance against the Oregon State Beavers, losing 81-72 and never once holding the lead during that game.

The implications from this week of basketball are not good at all. Utah dropped to 11-10 on the season and went from T-2 in the conference all the way down to T-5 (but really, they’re 7th based on current tiebreakers). With more tough games ahead this week on the road against USC and UCLA, that puts a major damper on Utah’s quest to receive a Top-4 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. It was only two games, but those games against the Oregon schools have dramatically impacted the level of excitement fans have for the rest of the season. If you’re in desperate need of some enthusiasm for the remainder of basketball season, here’s a list of reasons to be positive about Utah basketball. It’s not comprehensive, but it should give you a good boost to get you through this Los Angeles road trip.

The emergence of Timmy Allen!

If there is one player to be most excited about for Utah going forward, it’s the continued development of Timmy Allen. He has been absolutely on fire lately. If it hadn’t been for the emergence of Allen, especially as an offensive threat, the Utes definitely would not be over .500 in conference play at this point. Allen really stepped up once the Pac-12 schedule began.

During nonconference play, Allen only scored in double digits five times over the 12-game schedule. Most of these games were against weak, no-name teams as nonconference games tend to be. However, during conference play, he has scored in double digits in seven out of the nine games the Utes have played so far. He’s become such a crucial part of the Utah game plan that he only spent 90 seconds on the bench for the entire Oregon State game. While the rest of the team struggled, Allen dropped 24 points in the game on 67 percent shooting. If Allen continues to develop at this rate, he could become a huge star in the coming years with the program.

With the strides that Allen is making, there’s reasonable expectation that another one of the freshmen for Utah will also start taking steps forward. Both Gach and Riley Battin are the only other freshman seeing playing time at the moment. Battin has the capability to turn into a reliable forward, but Gach has shown a lot more upside. He’s incredibly athletic, shoots really well from 3-point range (38 percent), and he’s shown flashes that he can be great. A good example of this is his 22-point game against Kentucky. His biggest problem is he’s not consistent at all. After several games where it looked like he was going to become the regular sixth man in the rotation, his minutes have plummeted as of late. He played 14 minutes against Oregon and 7 minutes against Oregon State, and finished those two games with 0 points. It remains to be seen where Gach will stand at the end of the season, but these remaining games could be key in turning him into another cornerstone for the program going forward.

The recruiting class is good!

Utah has a really solid recruiting class coming in next season. It’s currently ranked 30th in the nation by 247Sports.com. The three players that are currently signed are all within the Top 201 of recruits in the nation. These new recruits are:

Rylan Jones PG – A 4-star point guard from Salt Lake City with lots of experience running an offense. Imagine a true point guard playing for the Utes! How nice would that be?

Mikael Jantunen PF – Jantunen is coming over from Finland and is the top recruit in the whole country which definitely has at least ten basketball players. Last time the Utes got a tall guy from a cold European country it turned out pretty well for them. Shout out to Jakob Poeltl.

Matthew Van Komen C – He’s 7’4”, that’s the most important thing you need to know.

Even if Utah continues to struggle this year, the team has a lot of talent to be excited about between the freshman playing well this year and the incoming recruits for the season ahead. Utah has the potential to take a huge step forward next year, so the rest of this year can focus on the development of the young guys. Also, if they could work on not turning the ball over, that would be great too.

They have a 3 percent chance to make the NCAA tournament!

So, you’re saying there’s a chance? According to TeamRankings.com, the Utes currently have a 3 percent chance to make the NCAA tournament. After this last week, that honestly sounds higher than it should be. As long as the Pac-12 tournament exists and as long as Utah hasn’t lost in said tournament, there will always be a chance that Utah can make the tournament, and there’s no way I can ever be talked out of this hope. Which leads us into another reason to be positive:

Everybody gets invited to the Pac-12 tournament!

No matter how bad (or good) things get for the rest of the regular season, they can still rest assured that they will get a chance to play in the Pac-12 Tournament. They can’t keep us out! I’m pretty sure there’s nothing Utah can do besides disband their basketball team to not get the chance of playing in the Pac-12 tournament. Even then, I’ll walk-on and create my own team. So, there’s always a chance.

The Utes didn’t lose to Cal!

The Utes destroyed Cal on the road at Berkeley. This is a positive for purely image related reasons. Cal is not good at basketball. Because of this, the Golden Bears have yet to win a game in the (*Bill Walton voice) Conference of Champions. Now I’m not an expert, but I think winning games is an important part of being a champion, but I guess when you’re in the Conference of Champions then you can also just be a champion by default.

The Utes are not so much winners here, but rather avoided being considered losers by being the first Pac-12 team to lose to Cal. There is going to be significant amount of embarrassment for any team that does finally slip up and lose to Cal, but it won’t be Utah this year. Maybe nobody will suffer that embarrassment, but then I guess Cal would be the ones suffering in this case. But at least there won’t be a PR disaster that surely will follow any team that loses to Cal from here on out. Unless it’s Washington State, if that happens most people will just accidentally forget both of those teams exist.

The Patriots lost in the Super Bowl!

Crap. Can’t use that one.

In the end, we all die!

Let’s turn to Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, for his perspective on everything after his team’s loss in the Super Bowl.

If you’re ever feeling bummed out about the Utes basketball season, or any other sport in general, you can always remember what Whitworth said and start considering your own mortality instead. Or you could ignore that and continue to invest your heart and soul in sports. I think I’m going with the second option.

Football season starts soon!

The Super Bowl just ended which means that football season will be starting again soon! In fact, it’s only 204 days until the Utes will take on BYU to start the college football season. August 29, 2019 is going to be a glorious day indeed. Also, there are only 213 days until the first home game of the season.

The Utes will bring back more production from last season’s roster than any other team in the Pac-12. They’re coming off of their first Pac-12 South title and first appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. Also, it’s National Signing Day today for college football, so the new recruits will be all set after today. It’s all very exciting.

With the way the Utes are set up, they’re realistically going to be favorites to repeat as Pac-12 South champions and compete for the conference title again.

Does any of this have anything to do with basketball? No. But if you love basketball and football, sometimes having hope in one sport leads to more enjoyment of the other.

Utah beat their one true rival this year!

Some of you may be perplexed by the statement you just read, but I don’t know why you would be confused because Utah did, in fact, crush their main/single/best rival this year in basketball. See?

Yes, Utah did crush Colorado this year. Utah fans can at least cling to that all season, knowing full well that they were victorious against their biggest rivals, the Buffalo. What’s cool about Colorado serving as Utah’s only rival in any sport, is that because Utah already beat Colorado, that means they don’t have a loss to a rival at any point in their season so far. Plus, they get another shot at the Buffs this season in what is sure to be another huge rivalry game between the two best athletic programs in the states of Utah and Colorado. Yes, these Pac-12 rivals have been going at it for (seven) years and the rivalry shows no signs of slowing down. Obvioisly, Utah fans don’t care about beating any team more than they care about beating Colorado. The best thing about the Colorado rivalry is that they show up for all four quarters of the games. Wait, there are two halves not four quarters in basketball? Why would I say that then? I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything here.

Even if you’re good in the Pac-12 this year, no one gives a flip!

Washington is 9-0 in conference play; doesn’t have a truly bad nonconference loss and they aren’t even in the AP Top 25 right now. They’re sitting at the top of the “Others Receiving Votes” category, and if they don’t win both games this week against the Arizona schools, there’s no way they’re cracking the Top 25. Clearly, everyone thinks that the whole Pac-12 is trash this year and that winning in the Pac-12 is the equivalent of winning in the West Coast Conference or something. Then again, Gonzaga is ranked No. 4 right now, so the Pac-12 might be considered worse.

Anyway, if people are going to treat the Pac-12 as trash, then you don’t want to waste a good season on this year because people won’t respect it anyway. Utah can have a mediocre year and slip by completely unnoticed by anyone outside of Salt Lake City because it will all just get lumped into the narrative of the Pac-12 being all-around bad at basketball. Poor Washington might win every game from here on out and still end up a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. This is a good year to have a mediocre season in the Pac-12 because your good year won’t be recognized anyway. Smart strategy by the Utes.

One last positive: There’s another game today! Utah play USC tonight. Let’s preview the game.

USC did that thing this past week that every Pac-12 team seems to do this year which is lose to Washington and then defeat Washington State fairly easily. The Trojans are now 6-3 and tied for second in the conference with Oregon State and Arizona State. The Trojans have a lot to play for in terms of fighting for position in the Pac-12 standings. There’s almost no chance that they’ll surpass Washington now and win the regular season title, but they can position themselves well for Las Vegas and the Pac-12 tournament. Also, if USC wants to give themselves a shot at making the NCAA tournament, they can’t afford any less than stellar losses now. USC doesn’t have any quality nonconference wins and they had two ugly losses against Vanderbilt and Santa Clara. A loss Utah at home would be devastating to their tournament hopes.

While nonconference play was ugly for the Trojans, they’ve played extremely well in conference play. Their losses up to this point have been against Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington. All three of those losses came on the road. USC has played well at home the whole season, they only have two losses at the Galen Center, and neither has come against a Pac-12 opponent (the losses were to No. 6 Nevada and Vanderbilt).

The Trojans have been carried in conference play by two upperclassmen forwards, Bennie Boatwright and Nick Rakocevic. Boatwright is a 6’10” senior who is playing like he only has a limited time left in college basketball. Since the beginning of conference play, Boatwright has been averaging 20 points per game. He’s got the height and strength to dominate guys in the paint, but he also is a huge asset to USC because of his ability to stretch the floor. He’s shooting 39 percent from 3-point territory in conference play.

The other big man for USC, Rakocevic, plays like a traditional center. He won’t shoot 3s (he’s 0-3 for the season), but he will protect the rim and is capable of scoring whenever he is near the basket. Rakocevic is nearly averaging a double-double on the season at 16.2 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game. He’s so close to that double-double.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Utah tries to defend these two throughout the game. The only players that are 6’9” or taller that play consistent minutes are Jayce Johnson, Riley Battin, and Novak Topalovic. Those three are tall, but none of them match the athleticism that USC brings to the table. They’re going to have to step up in this game though. Coach K has been starting Johnson and Battin together and that will likely continue against USC to try and match their size. When Johnson is sitting, Topalovic will most likely get the assignment to stop Rakocevic while Battin tries to keep up with Boatwright. The other option is to guard Boatwright with a smaller but more athletic forward.

USC isn’t necessarily dominant on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball. They’re ranked 101st in offensive efficiency by KenPom, and they’re ranked 102nd in defensive efficiency. Without Boatwright and Rakocevic, USC struggles a lot. According to Win Shares, Boatwright and Rakocevic are responsible for 3.1 and 3.5 wins respectively over the course of the season. The next closest player is Jonah Matthews at 2 wins. The determining factor in this game will be how much Utah can disrupt the games of Boatwright and Rakocevic. If they get into a rhythm early, it’s hard to see Utah having the necessary athletes to stop them.

The best bet will be for Utah to win with their backcourt. USC plays about six different guards in their rotation in a given game, and Utah has more talent and consistency from their guards. The offensive plan always seems to come back to if Sedrick Barefield can get going, if Timmy Allen can contribute, and then if one other player can step up, then Utah will have a real chance in this game. It can’t all rest on Allen and Barefield, the Oregon State game showed that. Utah needs a third player to step up offensively. If Utah can do that and defend effectively around the rim, they’ll stand a chance in this game. If not, well at least now you have a list of positives you can refer back to.

Utah plays USC tonight at 9 pm in Los Angeles.

The game will be televised on Pac-12 Network or it can be streamed on pac-12.com.

You can listen to it on the radio at ESPN 700.