The best Utah basketball season since 2004-’05 ended in last March’s Sweet 16 with a 63-57 loss to eventual national champion Duke. Saturday, the Runnin’ Utes get an opportunity at scoring some payback.
But more significantly for the 2015-’16 campaign, Saturday’s visit to Duke’s home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden, sets Utah back on a Top 25 course before Pac-12 Conference play.
Larry Krystkowiak’s bunch comes into the weekend sporting an 8-2 record — respectable, certainly, but off the pace projected for Utah before the season. The Runnin’ Utes dropped from the Top 25 after last weekend’s blowout loss to Wichita State, garnering the 36th-most votes. Utah’s viewed less favorably by KenPom.com, ranking No. 40 nationally.
Blame Utah’s resume, which is currently bereft of truly outstanding wins after losses to Miami and Wichita State.
Delaware State and the College of Idaho are Utah’s last two non-conference opponents before Pac-12 play begins, so Saturday is unequivocally the last opportunity the Runnin’ Utes have to make an impact and recapture the spark of last season.
Duke isn’t the matchup nightmare it was last spring, but the defending champions aren’t exactly slouches, either. Since losing to Kentucky last month, Duke is undefeated with wins over Georgetown and Indiana headlining its 9-1 record.
Stealing a win from New York City certainly won’t be easy. The circumstances themselves initially led Krystkowiak to balk at the rematch, as the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Kyle Goon details, but the coach eventually had a change of heart.
Coming so close on the heels of the Wichita State rout, Duke is the ultimate barometer of Utah’s big-picture aspirations.
When these teams met nine months ago, explosive swing-man Justise Winslow caused headaches for the Runnin’ Utes with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Winslow’s now doing his thing for the Miami Heat, while sophomore Grayson Allen’s emerged as Duke’s new threat on the wing.
Allen leads the nation’s top-ranked offense, per KenPom.com’s adjusted metrics, averaging more than 21 points per game. With lengthy freshman Brandon Ingram also operating on the wing, Utah must keep the Blue Devil perimeter players from slashing into the key.
Center Jakob Poeltl’s presence in the paint gives the Runnin’ Utes their best hope of neutralizing Duke’s attacking wings. And, in the biggest difference from a season ago, the Blue Devils can’t counter with similar size.
Utah had to account for Jahlil Okafor in March, which opened the floor up more for Winslow. Duke’s premier big man in 2015-’16, Amile Jefferson, is sidelined with a foot injury.
Poeltl will be the centerpiece for Utah’s attack on both sides of the ball, but the onus is on the perimeter players to come through when Duke draws its defense in.
Against Wichita State last Saturday, Utah shot a dreadful 14-of-34 of the floor. Take away Poeltl’s 4-of-5 shooting, and that dips to 10-of-29.
Poeltl needs more looks than five for Utah to have any success, but Utah perimeter options Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Lorenzo Bonam cannot afford to shoot a combined 6-of-21.
Gunning with the high-scoring Blue Devils won’t be an option.
Krystkowiak must have the Runnin’ Utes walking the ball downcourt more and controlling tempo. If they fail to, his initial qualms about taking on this game might well be validated.