The Runnin’ Utes are no longer the worst
Improving faster than an eye can blink
But in the desert they still died of thirst
A mere two steps shy of getting a drink
COMMENTARY — What a wild and crazy road trip for the Runnin’ Utes last week south of the border (south of the Utah-Arizona border that is). After two heartbreaks in a row — a 1-point overtime loss to Arizona State and a 3-point loss to Arizona — I don’t know how much more my overused and under-cared-for heart can take.
We learned a number of things about the Runnin’ Utes last week.
First, Utah’s success in non-conference games was no fluke. This team is for real! Utah is going to win a number of conference games against Pac-12 opponents and will continue to give very good teams (like fourth-ranked Arizona) fits even when Utah can’t quite pull off the win.
Second, Utah’s strength continues to be its defense, which still leads the Pac-12 in opponents’ field goal percentage at 35.4, which is good enough for seventh nationally. Case in point: Going into last week, Arizona was second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at 47.6; Utah held Arizona to 36.2 percent for the game on Arizona’s home court. the Utes actually shot 42.9 percent themselves, but took nine fewer shots than Arizona (including six fewer shots from 3-point range).
Third, Utah’s two glaring weaknesses continue to be turnovers and the inability to close-out games. I will continue to harp on these two items until Utah figures them out.
The Utes remain dead last in the Pac-12 in turnover margin, giving up on average nearly four more turnovers per game than they force the opposing team into. Utah lost the turnover battle to both Arizona State (10-8) and Arizona (11-9).
The Utes had a real chance to go 2-0 on their Arizona road trip, but came up empty at 0-2 instead. Against Arizona State, Utah missed a jumper with less than a minute left and the score tied. In overtime, the Utes missed three shots in the last 12 seconds to lose by one. Against Arizona, down by 1 with 11 seconds to play and the ball, Utah passed up an open lane to the interior for a mid-range jump shot and instead missed a 3-pointer that likely would have won the game. After a quick foul, Arizona hit two free throws to go up by three, but Utah missed another 3-point shot attempt at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
One significant difference between Utah’s two near-misses in Arizona and the majority of its prior four losses is that Utah didn’t give up a long-standing lead at the end of the game, but rather Utah failed to catch up before time expired. If these guys could actually put two halves together in the same game they could be very dangerous.
Moral victories are a poor substitute for real victories, especially when Utah has proven it has the ability to play with the big boys. Again, the problem is they still can’t take care of the ball and execute when the game is on the line in order to get over the hump and secure the win.
One of the bright spots for Utah is Jason Washburn, who is truly playing inspired. Early in the season coach Larry Krystkowiak had Dallin Bachynski starting with Washburn coming off the bench. That must have been a wake-up call to Washburn, who isn’t likely to be coming off the bench again anytime soon. Against Arizona, even the TV commentators called Washburn the best player on the floor. He scored the first eight points of the second half for the Utes and even hit a 3-pointer on his way to a 17-point game (15 in the second half). He also had 11 rebounds, two blocked shots and two assists.
Jordan Loveridge is also one of the top players for Utah despite his youth as a true freshman. He is one of a number of young players that should keep Utah competitive for years to come.
Next up for Utah is a home game against UCLA Thursday followed by another home game against USC Saturday (Jan. 12).
UCLA leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at 48 percent. If the Utes can shut UCLA down the way they’ve shut down most of their other opponents this year, Utah should be in a prime position to secure its first Pac-12 victory of the season at home on Thursday.
In contrast, USC is second to last in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage. There is no reason why Utah should not end the week with two consecutive conference victories to even out its conference record at 2-2. The Runnin’ Utes have the ability to win both games. We are about to see if they have the heart to do so as well.
Dwayne Vance is a sports commentator. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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