Bleeding Red: Hoops team mirroring football squad’s early success

The Huntsman Center makes teams cry
While Utah fans are so merry
Where even good teams come to die
And bad teams come to get buried

COMMENTARY — Utah’s wild win over Wichita State last week was wonderfully wicked! The overall energy in the Huntsman Center was powerfully palpable. I’m sure that the catchphrase “The Runnin’ Utes shocked the Shockers” has been used far too much this past week, but it is still true. Once again, big-time college basketball has returned to The Hill.

Wichita State’s overtime loss to Utah last week was the Shockers’ first regular-season loss since March 2, 2013 and snapped a 35-game regular-season winning streak.

utesI believe Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall summed it up the best after the game stating: “It was just a gritty game. We played well in the first half. They played better in the second half and then in overtime, they played one point better. It was two good teams going at it all night.”

What was truly impressive was that the Runnin’ Utes beat the Shockers without even having Jordan Loveridge, one of Utah’s best players, on the floor. With a wink and a nod to SNL’s Hans and Franz, hear me now and believe me later, but this team is poised for a break-out season.

As I compare the fortunes of the Runnin’ Utes with that of Utah’s gridiron team, I am intrigued by the parallels that have already emerged this year.

Both teams needed to learn how to finish and win close games. Last year, the Runnin’ Utes lost 8 of 9 games decided by four points or less. Similarly, last year Utah’s football team lost 2 of 3 games decided by four points or less. This year, the football team won 4 of 6 games decided by four points or less. So far, the basketball team is 1-1 in games decided by four points or less, splitting games with San Diego State and Wichita State.

Both teams have a number of newcomers who have had an immediate impact.

On the gridiron, JC transfer Devontae Booker not only beat out incumbent Bubba Poole to start at running back, but Booker was one of the top backs in the Pac-12. Kaelin Clay, another JC transfer, also made a substantial contribution, running back three punts for touchdowns, and also took a kickoff to the house. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson played significant time at quarterback, including a couple of starts, before he suffered a season-ending injury against Oregon. Freshman Lowe Lotulelei took over the starting job at nose tackle midway through the season.

On the hardwood, phenom freshman Jakob Poeltl, a 7-footer from Austria, immediately took over starting duties in the center ahead of fellow 7-footer Dallin Bachynski, as well as Jeremy Olson. Poeltl has already proven himself to be one of the best players on the team, and will likely jump to the NBA before his college eligibility expires. JC transfer Chris Reyes has also taken over a starting position alongside Poeltl in the post. Other freshmen who have already seen significant playing time include Brekkott Chapman, Kyle Kuzma and Isaiah Wright.

Both teams started their seasons this year by posting a 6-1 record, with the one loss being a very close and hard-fought game (a one-point loss at home to Washington State in football, while the basketball team lost by four on the road against a very good San Diego State team).

For me, the most notable similarity between the two teams is that in the first part of the season, each team beat an opponent who was currently ranked No. 8 in the nation. In Week 5 of the football season, Utah beat eighth-ranked UCLA on the road, 30-28. In only their seventh game of a 30-game season, the Runnin’ Utes beat the eighth-ranked Shockers in overtime at home 69-68. Call it mere coincidence or karma, but I find it fascinating.

Another major change for the football team from last year to this year was its ability to win on the road. After going 1-4 on the road in 2013, the football team was 5-1 in road games this year. Last year, the hoopsters posted a 2-9 road record. If they are going to be dancing in the NCAA Tournament at season’s end, then similar to the football team, they are going to have to learn how to win on the road.

We are about to find out how good of a road team the Runnin’ Utes can be. Their next three games are all road games, starting with BYU on Wednesday, followed by Kansas on Saturday and culminating with UNLV on Saturday, Dec. 20.

“This maybe simulates one of the more difficult stretches in a conference season — difficult road games top teams,” Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “The mind’s a pretty powerful thing and when we’re able to win a close game as we were against Wichita State maybe that’s a springboard to having some confidence to finish some games off.”

Coincidentally, Utah’s football team will also be playing in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 20, after accepting an invitation to play Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Talk about an early Christmas present for Ute fans! The football game kicks off at Sam Boyd Stadium at 1:30 p.m. MT, while the basketball game tips off at the MGM Grand later that evening at 9:30 pm MT.

“It’s going to be a heck of a day potentially for Ute fans to be able to go down and watch an afternoon bowl game and then conceivably stay together for one more late night game,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s attainable for a lot of fans to maybe get down there and do a little cross-training spectating.”

While I have never professed to have the memory of an elephant, I can’t recall ever being able to enjoy a double-header of Utah football and basketball on the same day, on the road, and in the same city.

“After an exciting regular season, our team is looking forward to playing in a bowl game,” stated Kyle Whittingham. “Las Vegas is a great destination, not only for our team, but for our fans.”

While Thanksgiving has come and gone and Christmas is still on the horizon, I’ll take the early gift of the doubleheader on Dec. 20. I hope Ute fans appreciate and are as excited about this unique opportunity as I am.

Dwayne Vance is a columnist covering the Utah Utes. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @oldschoolag

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

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