Bleeding Red: Utah hoops headed right direction as Pac-12 begins

Is Utah simply mirrors and smoke?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see
Coach K has the Utes going for broke
It’s time to bring on the Pac-12 teams!

COMMENTARY — What a difference a year can make! Utah has done what President Obama has failed to do for the past four years, and counting — turn around a program (country) that is obviously heading in the wrong direction with a sharp u-turn. While I will stop short of comparing Utah’s transformation to that of Captain America’s evolution from puny, pint-sized pedestrian to sizzling, superhero soldier, the Utes are vastly improved over last year.

Utah has stepped up its game on both ends of the court. The Utes have improved 278 spots in offensive field goal percentage from 306th to 28th nationally. While the Utes shoot a high percentage, they do not necessarily score a lot of points. However, it is on the defensive end that Utah has really excelled, improving 295 spots from 321st to 26th nationally in opponents field goal percentage.

Last year within the Pac-12, Utah was in the bottom three of virtually every major statistical category, and dead last in a handful of them. This year, Utah is near the top of the conference in many statistical categories and is currently leading the conference in overall field goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal percentage and defensive rebounds. In other words: defense, defense, defense.

Don’t worry, I am not so naïve that I wear crimson-colored glasses and don’t realize that Utah still has some weaknesses. Two Achilles’ heels — one for each foot — that Utah still has to overcome are turnovers and closing out games.

The Utes are dead last in the Pac-12 in turnover margin, giving up on average more than four turnovers than their opponents per game. And it’s not just full-court presses that give Utah problems. The Utes have given up a number of turnovers in the half-court game in the face of active defenses.

As the season wears on, opposing teams are going to continue to press and trap Utah more and more, both full-court and in the half-court. The Utes must prove that they can take care of the ball.

Utah is currently 8-4, but each and every one of the four losses has left the fans wondering what might have been. The average margin of defeat in Utah’s four losses is a slim 4.5 points.

One of Utah’s losses was a 7-point loss on the road to SMU, which the Utes avenged at home a week later.

In the second game of the season at home against Sacramento State, Utah had a 34-25 halftime lead and led by 13 with 12:27 left in the second half before squandering it away. Sac State won by one.

On the road against BYU, Utah only trailed for a total of 38 seconds in the first half at 7-6, and held a 35-26 lead at halftime. BYU didn’t regain the lead until 4:17 left in the game and held on for a 3-point victory. I would have liked to see Utah play BYU a second time on the hill to see if they could have avenged the loss in Provo, similar to their performances against SMU, but alas the Utes only had one shot at the Cougars this year.

Utah’s fourth loss was to Cal State Northridge at home the week before Christmas. Utah never trailed in the first half and held a 48-27 lead at halftime. The first half was some of the best basketball Utah has played in years. However, the second half was significantly less inspired. Northridge took its first lead in the game with 5:17 left to play and held on for a 5-point victory as Utah only scored 23 points in the second half.

The inability to close out games is not necessarily surprising given the fact that this is a young Utah team that is still learning to play together. I expect them to get better at closing out games as the season wears on. The problem is that their competition is going to be significantly improved as well as they enter conference play.

The turnovers are a little more troubling and will be a major factor in Utah’s success in conference play as Utah faces stiff competition right out of the chute.

Utah opens up Pac-12 play on the road against 11-2 Arizona State on Jan. 2 for the first conference basketball game of the season. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 with nearly eight blocked shots a game. Many of those blocks are attributable to Jordan Bachynski, Dallin’s brother. The siblings will be facing off for the first of what promises to be many battles of the brothers in conference play.

Before leaving the Grand Canyon State, Utah pays a visit to 12-0 Arizona on Jan. 5. This game will pit each team’s strength against strength, as Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at 47.6%, and Utah is first in the Pac-12 in holding opponents to 35.2% from the field. If the Utes can continue to defend Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12 the way they have defended non-conference opponents, they’re going to surprise a lot of teams.

Let the games begin, and may the odds be always in Utah’s favor!


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

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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