Bleeding Red: 2015 Runnin’ Utes are eerily similar to Van Horn-led ’97 team

There’s something familiar about the Utes
Like a team for which I once used to root
As Yogi Berra supposedly said
It’s like déjà vu all over again

COMMENTARY — The Runnin’ Utes have a star player who is receiving a lot of national attention, and is a finalist for many of the major individual awards. There are also a number of other really good players on the team, some of whom are expected to eventually play in the NBA. A handful of freshman have made significant contributions to the team’s success. Utah has even scoured the globe to bring in talent from Europe. The true hallmark of the squad is its stingy defense. The players each understand their roles and play as a team, proving the axiom that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keith Van Horn, who played 11 seasons in the NBA after playing at Utah.
Keith Van Horn, who played 11 seasons in the NBA after playing at Utah.

I’m sure you have guessed by now that I am talking about the 1996-97 Runnin’ Utes, with headliner Keith Van Horn, and a more than able supporting cast that included the likes of future NBA players Andre Miller, Michael Doleac and Finnish import Hanno Mottola. The team posted a 29-4 record for the season, which was the second most wins in school history at the time. Although the team advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, it ultimately fell to Kentucky.

Sound familiar? This year, Delon Wright is playing the headlining role once filled by Van Horn, and is a finalist for more individual awards than I care to list. The roster also boasts plenty of other talented players, many of whom have the potential to eventually play in the NBA, including Jakob Poeltl (an Austrian import). Along with Poeltl, fellow freshmen Brekkott Chapman, Kyle Kuzma and Isaiah Wright have made significant contributions to the team’s success. Utah leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, and ranks eighth and fifth nationally in those categories, respectively.

Delon Wirght
Delon Wirght

The parallels between Van Horn’s Runnin’ Utes of old, and the current squad led by Delon Wright are simply stunning. I think the respective trajectories of the two teams are also aligned more than I would like to admit.

While Utah earned a No. 2 seed in the 1997 NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight, that was only a glimpse of what was yet to come. In 1998 the Runnin’ Utes improved upon their performance of the previous year by making it all the way to the NCAA Championship game (before losing to Kentucky, yet again), notwithstanding the loss of Van Horn to the NBA and a No. 3 seed in the tournament. The Runnin’ Utes took the concept of team basketball to a whole new level, and many of the players who formerly deferred to Van Horn stepped up their own games.

Similar to the 1997 squad, this year’s team is still learning how to win, notwithstanding its many successes thus far. At times, it appears that some of the players lean too heavily on standout Delon Wright, especially on the offensive end of the court. While I wish this gritty Utah team nothing but the best in both the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament and the ensuing NCAA Tournament, they have a definite ceiling when it comes to the success they can realistically be expected to achieve. However, next year … I’m telling you right now, I just can’t wait!

But I am getting ahead of myself. There is still plenty of basketball to be played this year and a number of W’s still left to ring up.

With a 22-6 record and ranked No. 13-nationally, this year is already an unqualified success for Utah. Similar to the football team, Utah has already exceeded expectations. If you had told me at the beginning of the season before a single game had been played that the Runnin’ Utes would be 22-6 at this point in the season and nationally-ranked, I would have taken it in a heartbeat and never looked back. I am not going to readjust my expectations now just because these hoopsters have proven to be better than I had initially imagined.

The reality is that this year’s team is good, very good. Four of the six losses have come against teams that were ranked no lower than 16 at the time, with the other two losses coming on the road to Pac-12 opponents with storied basketball programs. The Runnin’ Utes are far from perfect, but so am I. If my wife can settle for a lug like me and still find happiness, then I can find all sorts of reasons to be happy with the Runnin’ Utes.

While Larry Krystkowiak is the consummate coach who is never satisfied and always expects his players and the team as a whole to be better, even he has admitted to being pleased with much of what has transpired thus far this season.

“I’ve got to remind myself that we are doing some good things,” he said. “It’s certainly never going to be perfect, and Saturday was far from what we needed in order to beat that top team, but we do have a good team.”

Utah’s final two games of the regular season are very winnable road games against Washington State on Thursday and Washington on Saturday. This may just be me looking through my crimson-colored glasses, but I see no reason why the Runnin’ Utes should lose either game.

Here’s hoping that Utah can finish the regular season strong as they gear up for what promises to be a fun and entertaining post-season run.

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, 2015, all rights reserved.

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