Bleeding Red: Back to the dance at last for the Runnin’ Utes

The Runnin’ Utes are going to the dance
And now they’re in, there is always a chance
The Red Rocks are chasing a title too
With the Pac-12 Tourney next in the que

COMMENTARY — For the first time since 2009, the Runnin’ Utes are back in the Big Dance, with a chance to notch Utah’s first tournament victory since 2005.

The Runnin’ Utes have got to be happy going into the tournament as a 5-seed. Notably, at 24-8, Utah is only one win better than Oregon at 25-9, and the Ducks have accounted for two of the Runnin’ Utes last four losses. Nevertheless, Utah is a 5-seed and Oregon is an 8-seed. In fact, if the Runnin’ Utes hadn’t limped through their last seven games with a 3-4 record, they were arguably in line for at least a 3-seed, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.

utesThe task at hand for Utah is a match-up with 12-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday. This will be a classic strength-against-strength contest as the Lumberjacks boast an offense that has rarely been slowed down by an opponent this year and are eighth in the nation in scoring offense, while the Runnin’ Utes habitually hold teams well below their scoring average at 11th in the nation in scoring defense.

Utah is going to have a significant size advantage with Stephen F. Austin starting a front court of Jacob Parker at 6-foot-6 and Thomas Walkup at 6-4. The only size the Lumberjacks can even put on the floor are bench role players in Tanner Clayton at 6-9 and Bobby King at 6-7. With 7-footers Jacob Poeltl and Dalin Bachynski trading time on the court, alongside 6-8 Brekkot Chapman and 6-7 Chris Reyes in the post, not to mention the ability to bring 6-10 Jeremy Olsen and 6-9 Kyle Kuzma off of the bench, the Runnin’ Utes are going to look like California Redwoods to the Lumberjacks in comparison to the typical competition that they have faced in the Southland Conference.

I know, I know, Utah had a size advantage over Oregon too, and dropped both games to the smaller Ducks. However, Stephen F. Austin is simply not Oregon, and if the Lumberjacks had played in the Pac-12 then I’m willing to bet their offensive production would have suffered dramatically and they likely wouldn’t even be in the NCAA Tournament at all.

While the 5-12 matchup produces one of the most common upsets in the tournament year in and year out, I don’t see the Runnin’ Utes losing this game. After the big win over Stanford in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, head coach Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged, “It was good to get that mojo back, which we haven’t really had except for the Arizona State game.” Notwithstanding the last-second loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 semifinals, Utah has the early season mojo back and is on track for a solid performance on the big stage this week.

People looking for bracket busting upsets need not fret too much about the Runnin’ Utes taking care of business against Stephen F. Austin, as the other 5-12 match-ups between West Virginia and Buffalo, Arkansas and Wofford and Northern Illinois and Wyoming are bound to produce at least one upset to keep the brackets interesting.

Speaking of making things interesting, the Red Rocks are about to embark on their own post-season run. This Saturday Utah hosts the Pac-12 gymnastics tournament.

The No. 4-ranked Red Rocks narrowly missed out on what could have been only the second undefeated regular season in school history in a near-miss at Georgia last week. Utah uncharacteristically struggled on the floor, which opened the door just wide enough for the Bulldogs to sneak in and steal the win.

Georgia Dabritz
Georgia Dabritz

Notwithstanding their struggles on the floor, the Red Rocks showed some real resiliency and competitive spirit in storming back on the beam and making Georgia earn the win on the floor.

“We really handled that situation well,” said co-head coach and beam coach Megan Marsden. “Under difficult circumstances, we could have gotten tentative, but we didn’t. We had some really great performances on the beam.”

Utah is the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament this weekend, and buoyed by an unparalleled home crowd, the Red Rocks are the prohibitive favorite to win the conference title for the second year in a row. But Utah has its sights set a lot higher than just a conference title, with Nationals, and potentially another national title, looming on the horizon.

Here’s hoping the Runnin’ Utes put on a textbook display of how the big boys play basketball and keep on dancing into a Saturday match-up against the winner of Georgetown and Eastern Washington, while the Red Rocks rock the house on The Hill one more time this year for another conference title on Saturday.

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

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Twitter: @oldschoolag

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

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