Bleeding Red: Runnin’ Utes ready for Pac-12, with or without Johnson

With the New Year, let’s sing Auld Lang Syne
Will Jayce be playing or riding pine?
Anticipation is killing me
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see

COMMENTARY — Well, as the New Year approaches, so does the Runnin’ Utes’ Pac-12 schedule. Let’s take a moment to sum up the old (the non-conference schedule) and get ready to ring in the new (the Pac-12 schedule).

Utah is currently sitting at 10-2 and nationally-ranked. A very good Wichita State team, and an even better Miami team, have handed the Runnin’ Utes their only losses of the season. Along the way, Utah picked up a signature win against Duke in overtime in Madison Square Garden.

utes logoThe Runnin’ Utes finish up their non-conference schedule tonight as they host the College of Idaho on The Hill, with a 7 p.m. tip. Yes, you heard me right, the College of Idaho — not the University of Idaho, or even Idaho State, but rather the College of Idaho Coyotes based in Caldwell, Idaho, with an enrollment of approximately 1,070 students. To put that in perspective, Desert Hills High School in St. George has about 150 more students (and Lone Peak High School in Highland has more than twice as many students). It would be a gross overstatement to describe tonight’s match-up as anything more than a final tune-up before the start of what promises to be a very challenging Pac-12 schedule.

Utah has played some good basketball already this season. One of the biggest challenges early in the season is assimilating new players into the team, and trying to build some chemistry and cohesiveness among the players on the court.

The biggest loss from last year’s team was standout guard Delon Wright. The Runnin’ Utes are also missing some size in the post with the graduation of Dallin Bachynski and the early retirement of Jeremy Olsen for health reasons.

Jayce Johnson
Jayce Johnson

Overall, the Runnin’ Utes welcome five new players to the team this year (actually six, but freshman guard Brandon Miller asked for and was granted his release from the team earlier this month). The roster spot created by the departure of Miller has already been filled by Jayce Johnson, a 7-footer out of Santa Monica High School in California, who graduated from high school early and joined Utah’s squad a week ago.

The addition of Johnson gives the Runnin’ Utes two legitimate 7-footers, similar to last year’s rotation with Bachynski in the mix. With the combination of his youth and talent, Johnson could be the most intriguing addition to the team this year. It remains to be seen when fans will actually get to see Johnson play as he was one of the few players not to see the floor in a blow-out win over Delaware State last week.

“It’s pretty unfair to expect him to come in, and number one it’s hard for any freshman when they get a normal timeline to try and pull it off,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “What he’s brought to our practices is a level of physicality that we haven’t had. It’s taken the level of play to a different level and it’s going to give Jayce an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and not be a normal freshman when he comes in.”

Coach Krystkowiak won’t comment on whether the intention is to redshirt Johnson this season, and truthfully that decision probably hasn’t been made yet. How the season unfolds may impact whether Johnson plays this season.

Another newcomer, junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam, has already helped fill the void left by the departure of Delon Wright. Bonam is still a little inconsistent, and at times displays some of the bad habits of a junior college player who is used to being the best player on the floor and surrounded by inferior talent. However, Bonam has also displayed explosiveness and the ability to not only get to the basket, but finish strong.

Jakob Poeltl has clearly been the dominant player for Utah thus far, averaging 18 points, nearly 10 rebounds, and more than 2 blocks per game. According to ESPN, Poeltl is leading the nation in Player Efficiency Rating.

Utah forward Kyle Kuzma (35) blocks a shot by Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in New York. Utah won 77-75 in overtime. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Utah forward Kyle Kuzma (35) blocks a shot by Duke guard Grayson Allen (3), Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

While Poeltl has stepped up his game this year, he was already a major contributor for the Runnin’ Utes as a freshman last year. Kyle Kuzma has probably improved his game more than anyone else on the team, including Poeltl. While Kuzma was a rotation player last year as a freshman, he has evolved into a starter and a player who can downright dominate a game at times.

In stark contrast to tonight’s game against the College of Idaho, Utah begins its grueling Pac-12 schedule on New Year’s Day against a very good Stanford team. In fact, the Runnin’ Utes’ first three conference games are all on the road as they visit Cal on Sunday (Jan. 3), followed by a trip to Colorado on Jan. 8.

Similar to the stiff competition among Pac-12 teams in football (with 10 of 12 Pac-12 teams being invited to bowl games), the Pac-12 is going to be tough sledding for basketball teams as well.

The only major conferences with more wins than the Pac-12’s 112 wins so far this season are the ACC with 133 wins (but 15 teams), and the Big-10 with 129 wins (and 14 teams). The Pac-12’s current winning percentage of .778 is second only to the Big-12’s .826, but the Pac-12 has a significantly higher strength of schedule than the Big-12.

“There are some pretty darn good teams that are taking care of business and winning a number of games,” Krystkowiak said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “(The conference) is ultra competitive this year.”

As fun as the Utah football team was to watch this year (especially earlier in the season, although I truly enjoyed the win over BYU in the season finale), the Runnin’ Utes are going to be just as fun, if not more fun, to watch.

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes take care of business tonight against the College of Idaho, and make a big splash on the coast in the Pac-12 with road games against Stanford and Cal coming up.

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

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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