To find an illustration of just how much Utah’s men’s basketball program has changed since the Utes joined the Pac-12 conference three seasons ago, look at the Huntsman Center. And look at the seats.
Most of them are filled.
This is the dilemma the Washington Huskies face when they visit the Utes for a 5:30 p.m. game Sunday. Not only has Utah (15-3 overall, 5-1 in Pac-12) transformed itself into a legitimate Pac-12 title contender under fourth-year coach Larry Krystkowiak. The Utes have also constructed a homecourt advantage as intimidating as any in the conference, averaging 11,179 fans (capacity is 15,000) through their first 12 home games – and 12,818 through their first four Pac-12 home games.
The team is pretty good, too, and so Utah hasn’t lost at the Hunstman Center this season. That makes Sunday’s contest the stiffest challenge yet for the Huskies, who might not play in a more adverse environment this season.
Washington (14-4, 3-3) is 2-0 in games against ranked opponents, beating then-No. 13 San Diego State at home, and then-No. 15 Oklahoma in Las Vegas. But this is the Huskies’ first test against a ranked opponent in a true road setting.
“They’re a really good defensive team, like San Diego State,” said Huskies point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. “They hold teams to low points-per-
game, just like State, a low field goal percentage. And then they’re sound offensively. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over a lot. So they’re just a really fundamentally sound team. You’re really going to have to be sharp, to beat them, for 40 minutes.”
In other words: the Huskies probably have to play better than they did on Thursday, when they escaped Boulder with a 52-50 victory over Colorado on a last-
second jumper by Andrew Andrews. They won in spite of 13 turnovers and just 36 percent shooting from the field – and Andrews’ jumper was one of only two baskets made by UW in the game’s final eight minutes.
That likely won’t get it done against Utah, though scoring won’t be easy. The Utes rank 18th nationally in field-goal percentage defense, allowing foes to shoot only 37.7 percent from the field.
It’s that smothering defense – a Krystkowiak staple – that has Utah poised for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.
“They’re difficult to score on – really difficult to score on,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. “They play great position defense. Very rarely do they get themselves extended where they’re out of position. Very rarely is there not help, and they get back. They keep you out of transition. They make it difficult for you to score.”
The Huskies excel in that area, too, ranking sixth in the country at 35.6 percent. But with starting forward Jernard Jarreau out while recovering from knee surgery, the Huskies have switched to a zone defense that has been effective but still yields more open shots from the perimeter than they would like.
Colorado had some decent 3-point looks on Thursday night, but made only 5-of-19. Utah, with do-it-all guard Delon Wright and accurate 3-point shooters like Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor, isn’t as likely to miss. The Utes shoot 40.7 percent from 3-point range as a team, better than all but eight teams in the country.
Wright alone will be a headache. The 6-foot-5 senior leads Utah with 15.1 points per game, along with 5.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals. His long arms could pose problems for a Huskies team that had trouble feeding the post against Colorado.
“He can score eight points and still control the game, because he can rebound, he’s in the passing lanes, he has quick hands,” Romar said, “and he’s so quick and such a good ball-handler and passer, once he gets a steal, it’s a transition bucket in a lot of cases.”
It’s been a steady climb for the Utes and Krystkowiak, who inherited a struggling program that won only three conference games in 2011-12, its first year of Pac-12 membership.
The next year, they finished 5-13 in Pac-12 play. Last year, they went 9-9, earning an NIT bid in the process.
“Now,” Romar said, “he has a group of kids that want to buy in that are invested in this program, and now look what’s being accomplished. That’s what’s really impressive to me – what it took to get this program off the floor, and to get it to where it is.”
Which would make a Washington victory here that much more important.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us as a team to get a quality road win,” Williams-Goss said. “Obviously, it’s a tough place to play, but so is Colorado. We’re looking to come in here, and our mindset is to get an upset.”