Bleeding Red: U throws hat in Pac-12 ring with two big wins

In conference play they’ve won as many as they’ve lost
But the line between boys and men they now have crossed
It’s not quite the same as the Majerus hey day
But there’s no doubt the Runnin’ Utes are back baby

COMMENTARY — I know, I know, Utah is only 3-3 in conference play, and still has the worst RPI in the Pac-12. But two consecutive wins, including a victory over 25th ranked UCLA, have created more buzz about this team than a bee trying to give directions to the Rose Parade to the rest of the hive.

As Albert Einstein taught us oh so well — it’s all relative. After struggling mightily in their first two seasons in the Pac-12, this year’s team is poised for the breakthrough season that anxious fans have been itching for ever since Larry Krystowiak was hired.

And it’s not just about the number of wins or losses, but rather how the Runnin’ Utes are winning (and narrowly losing). I’ve already harped about Utah’s four losses by a single bucket in each game. On the other side of the coin, they have won 12 of 14 games by double-figures.

With a dozen games left to play, the Runnin’ Utes already have two signature wins under their belts. Utah’s dominant win over BYU still brings a smile to my face whenever I think about it. However, the Runnin’ Utes most recent victory over the Bruins was even more impressive.

Utah held UCLA in check for virtually the entire game. The Bruins’ biggest lead of the game was a paltry three points, and UCLA only held a lead for a total of three minutes and seventeen seconds throughout the entire game, finally surrendering the lead for good with just under eight minutes left to play in the first half. The Runnin’ Utes’ largest lead was 17 points. Even though the Bruins made it a one possession game with 22 seconds to play, Utah finally got the monkey off of its back by winning a close game against a quality opponent.

“It was spooky how it got down to the end of the game, but we had a lot unforced errors and they came at us with length,” Krystkowiak said. “That produced a problem. It was not a pretty ending but it’s a W — one over a Top-25 team. I’d say it’s been a pretty good week.”

Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak huddles with guard Brandon Taylor (11) and forward Jordan Loveridge (21) and center Dallin Bachynski (31) during the second half against the UCLA Bruins at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Utah won 74-69, Salt Lake City, Jan. 18, 2014 | Photo by Russ Isabella, USA TODAY Sports via Utah Athletics
Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak huddles with guard Brandon Taylor (11) and forward Jordan Loveridge (21) and center Dallin Bachynski (31) during the second half against the UCLA Bruins at Jon M. Huntsman Center. Utah won 74-69, Salt Lake City, Jan. 18, 2014 | Photo by Russ Isabella, USA TODAY Sports via Utah Athletics

It has indeed been a pretty good week, but that is now in the past and the Runnin’ Utes have to look to the future. Utah has won 18 of its last 20 games at home, dating back to last season. But they still have to prove that they can win on the road. This week the Runnin’ Utes get a chance to do just that as they go back on the road to play Arizona State on Thursday, followed by a showdown with No. 1 Arizona on Sunday.

Arizona has established itself as not only the head of the class in the Pac-12, but also the cream of the crop nationally. After you take the Wildcats off of the table, everybody is literally beating everyone else on the Pac-12 schedule. It is not too far-fetched to say that Utah is emerging as a serious contender in a conference race in which it seems that everyone is playing for second place.

Like Arizona, Cal still remains undefeated in conference play. However, the Bears have yet to play either of the Arizona schools, UCLA, Colorado … or Utah. The remaining teams in the Pac-12 have at least two conference losses, with nearly half the conference registering three losses. Utah is right in the thick of things and could make the remainder of the Pac-12 season very interesting indeed.

The Runnin’ Utes have consistently played great defense throughout the season. However, their offense has waned considerably in conference play. While Utah still averages 81.0 points per game, that number drops significantly to only 68.2 points per game when looking only at conference games.

Coach Krystowiak understands that the Runnin’ Utes need to be much better on offense in order to win games in the Pac-12. “I think it’s a misconception that your effort is judged by how you play defensively. We needed to do that on offense.”

Utah players have been encouraged to make the extra pass and be willing to pass up a good shot in order to get an even better shot for a teammate. Sounds good in theory, and usually you will get a better shot with an extra pass. But the extra pass needs to have a purpose and really create a better shot, as opposed to just swinging the ball endlessly around the perimeter and then forcing up a bad shot as the shot clock expires (which was a serious problem for the Runnin’ Utes in many of their losses).

Einstein spent a lot of time in the lab experimenting in order to prove and disprove various theories. The next two games will be an excellent lab in which the Runnin’ Utes will be tested to see how much they truly have improved. Two more losses would be a considerable setback. A split would actually be very encouraging, while a sweep would be the functional equivalent of cold fusion. We all know how Utah’s last shot at cold fusion worked out, so I’m being a little bit more realistic and shooting for the split.

~

Dwayne Vance is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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