Bleeding Red: Gritty Utah can’t get over hump on Pac-12 road

The Utes have improved vastly over teams in years gone by
But still so far from that deluxe apartment in the sky
It’s not really like one step forward and then two steps back
But rather treading water without much of an attack

COMMENTARY — The Runnin’ Utes are really taking their fans on a roller coaster ride this season, with promising highs and disappointing lows. The good news is that it has been a number of years since Utah hoops fans have even ridden the roller coaster, but rather have just been dangling at the end of a bungee cord with not much spring in it at all. The bad news is that this is eerily reminiscent of the misfortunes of Utah’s gridiron squad in the Pac-12 — lots of near-misses, but precious few wins.

After battling back to an even record in conference play at 3-3, Utah has since dropped back to 3-5 with two straight road losses to Arizona State and Arizona. Again, the Runnin’ Utes have never had a winning record in conference play since joining the Pac-12.

Although the Runnin’ Utes were in the hunt in both games, they showed their youth with mental errors and lack of execution at critical junctures in both games.

utahAgainst Arizona State, Utah led for virtually the entire first half, and held the lead in the second half with 7:32 remaining in the game. In the final seven minutes of the game, the Runnin’ Utes cut the lead to two points twice and one point twice. However, the Sun Devils always responded and Utah could not get a stop when it desperately needed one, ultimately losing by four points.

The real Achilles heel for the Runnin’ Utes in the second half was their inability to protect the rim. At times, it appeared that Arizona State’s Jahii Carson could drive the lane for a layup at will, scoring eight points in a critical five-minute span in the second half. Carson ultimately finished the game with 23 points.

Against undefeated and top-ranked Arizona, Utah opened the game strong to take a 10-point lead at 12-2 seven minutes in. That’s when the wheels started to come off, with the Wildcats going on a 12-0 run of their own to take the lead with eight minutes left to play in the half. During Arizona’s 12-0 run, the Runnin’ Utes turned the ball over three times, committed four fouls, and gave up six offensive rebounds.

To this young team’s credit, they battled back and forth for the remainder of the first half, with the lead changing hands several times. But the Wildcats got a dunk off of an offensive rebound as time expired to push their lead to five — their biggest lead of the game at that point.

Similar to the start of the first half, Utah started the second half strong and retook the lead four minutes in. The score was tight for much of the second half, with Utah taking its last lead of the game at 47-45 with 11:04 left to play.

That’s when Arizona went on a 12-2 run, and never really looked back after that. During that 12-2 run, Utah had one turnover, committed two fouls, took three shots with less than seven seconds on the shot clock and gave up four offensive rebounds.

Arizona’s Nick Johnson must have studied tape of Arizona State’s Jahii Carson slashing the Runnin’ Utes interior as Johnson had a similar performance against the Runnin’ Utes. Johnson scored eight of the Wildcats’ 12 points in their second half 12-2 run, finishing with 22 points for the game.

The lack of an interior defense was Utah’s ultimate demise against Arizona as the Wildcats pulled down 20 offensive rebounds, leading to 19 second-chance points (with many of those being lay-ups and dunks).

So what are the takeaway lessons from last week’s games?

Notwithstanding Utah’s 3-5 record in the Pac-12, the Runnin’ Utes are still a tough out. Their average margin of defeat is still only 5 points per game, with their biggest loss being a 9-point road loss to the undefeated No. 1-ranked team in the nation — a team that typically wins by nearly 19 points a game.

When the Runnin’ Utes push the ball up the floor on offense, and actively work towards a good shot early in the shot clock, they are much more productive offensively. Whenever they get a lead, they tend to slow things down in an attempt to shorten the game. However, in doing so, they take themselves out of the rhythm that got them the lead in the first place, and they end up with a lot of empty possessions punctuated by bad shots forced up as the shot clock expires — or worse — outright shot clock violations.

For whatever reason, this team just can’t buy a win on the road. In conference play Utah is 3-1 at home, and 0-4 on the road, including a loss at Washington State in which the Runnin’ Utes scored a paltry 46 points in giving the Cougars their sole conference win. Utah also lost its sole road game at Boise State in non-conference play.

The Runnin’ Utes have proven they have the talent and the grit to play with the big boys in the Pac-12, and the top-ranked team in the nation. On the other side of the coin, Utah’s lack of consistency and prolonged lapses in execution at critical junctures in the game have kept it out of the win column in most of its conference contests.

Utah finishes up the first half of conference play with a single game this week against Colorado on Saturday afternoon. The bad news is that it is another road game. As the Runnin’ Utes approach the hump in Pac-12 play, it will be interesting to see if they can get over the hump with their first road win of the season.

~

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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