Bleeding Red: Utah’s sweep helps tighten the competitive Pac-12 race

The Runnin’ Utes are back on track
Right there in the thick of the pack
Protecting their home is the key
If champions they want to be

Forget the 12 labors of Hercules. It is going to take a Herculean effort for any team to labor through the 12 teams in the toughest conference in the nation — the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 currently claims nine teams in the RPI Top 50 (and 11 in the Top 60). Consequently, after only seven conference games the league leaders already have two losses each (Washington and Oregon), and another six teams are hot on their heels with three losses (including Utah).

utesRoad wins in the Pac-12 are going to be harder to find than a Ute fan at a Justin Bieber concert. The Pac-12 champ is going to have to protect its home floor, and somehow manage to pick up a few wins on the road. I won’t be surprised if the Pac-12 champ has as many as five losses by the time we get to the conference tournament in March.

Utah took a big step in re-establishing itself as a conference contender by picking up two valuable road wins in sweeping the state of Washington last weekend. The common thread in both games was balanced scoring from multiple Runnin’ Utes and solid defense at the other end of the court.

Against Washington State, four different Utah players had a double-digit scoring effort for the first time this year in conference play. Jordan Loveridge led the way with 22 points, followed by Brandon Taylor, Jakob Poeltl, and Lorenzo Bonam.

At Washington, five Runnin’ Utes were in double figures, with Kyle Kuzma joining the fantastic four from the prior game, and Poeltl putting up a game-high 29 points.

In Utah’s first five conference games, three Runnin’ Utes had double-digit scoring games just once (and in three of the other games, only two players scored in double figures, with just a single player scoring 10 or more in the remaining game).

In other words, Utah is somewhat similar to the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider — When the Runnin’ Utes have at least four cylinders firing in any given game, they are a lean, mean, driving (scoring) machine and can go the distance; but they just can’t find the finish line with only a couple of players shouldering the offensive load.

Utah may only be 4-3 in conference play, but notably five of their first seven games have been on the road, with the Runnin’ Utes claiming victory in their last three road games. Conversely, Utah will conclude conference play with 5 of their last 7 games at home. That is going to be a big advantage down the stretch.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This week is hump week as the Runnin’ Utes finish up the first half and embark on the second half of conference play. Utah hosts Cal on The Hill Wednesday night, tipping off at 9 p.m. (televised on ESPNU). The Runnin’ Utes then take on Stanford in a Saturday matinee at 3 p.m. (televised on the Pac-12 Network).

Speaking of Saturday 3 p.m. matinees, last weekend the Red Rocks hosted their first afternoon gymnastics meet on The Hill in school history. No. 7-ranked Utah did not disappoint as it outpaced Oregon State 196.125 to 195.125 during the annual blackout meet.

As usual, the fan support for the Red Rocks was stunning. There was a long line of people outside of the Huntsman Center waiting for the doors to open up even as snow fell on The Hill. Ultimately, fans were turned away as the Huntsman Center filled to capacity with a crowd of 15,550 on hand (after 16,019 packed the house for the Michigan meet last year, the fire marshal determined that only 15,550 fans would be permitted through the doors from then on). The fans who were turned away from the Oregon State meet walked away with tickets to the next home meet on February 1 against Arizona.

Utah gymnastics at the Huntsman Center. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics
Utah gymnastics at the Huntsman Center. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

Watching the Red Rocks perform in person continues to be one of the best sources of entertainment in the entire state. I am pleased that Utah gymnastics is reaching a broader audience with its expanded exposure on the Pac-12 Network (the Oregon State meet was televised live). However, the live television broadcasts have resulted in some changes to the in-arena experience for fans.

Television breaks have presented some slight delays in the progression of the performances. Nevertheless, it’s still hard to complain about the television delays in gymnastics meets when compared to the delays in football and basketball games caused by television breaks.

Additionally, it appears that the live television broadcasts may be limiting the number of exhibition routines that are performed (or more accurately, not performed) during televised meets.

It is not unusual to have each team have an exhibition performance (one that does not count towards the overall score) in multiple events over the course of the meet. It is always nice for the fans to enjoy one more performance by these talented ladies, especially to get a glimpse of what lies ahead for the team as the younger gymnasts progress through the program. I’ve got to believe that the opportunity to perform on the big stage is also a big stepping stone in the development of these elite athletes.

There were precious few exhibition performances in las Saturday’s meet. In fact, at the conclusion of the meet it was announced that one of the Red Rocks would perform an exhibition floor routine. However, rather abruptly, both teams were marched onto the floor for the announcement of the final scores (which were still being tabulated almost up to the very moment they were announced), and I didn’t get to see the exhibition floor routine.

If my biggest complaint about televised gymnastics meets is that the number of exhibition performances are limited, then it’s a safe bet that televised meets are going well (but I’d still like to see more exhibition performances).

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes can protect their home floor this week and avenge their prior costly road losses to both Cal and Stanford.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of St. George News. 

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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