The Runnin' Utes' NCAA Tournament hopes have been declared dead many times already: after losses to Butler, San Francisco, Oregon and Stanford among them. At 17-8 with its best win over USC at home, yes, they are on the outs. But this game this Thursday night ESPN date in Eugene is really Utah's last lifeline ahead of the Pac-12 Tournament.
A quick explainer on what doesn't matter to making the Big Dance: reaching fourth place in the Pac-12 and reaching 20 wins. These benchmarks, while many tournament teams reach them, do little to give a team enough ammo to enter. What has been valued in recent years is signature wins who you beat, and where you beat them.
A win over Oregon in Eugene doesn't get much bigger. It would be a win over a team judged a 2-seed this last weekend, and be something that actually pops out on Utah's resume. It also would help counterbalance unseemly losses against San Francisco and Stanford.
Would it definitely push Utah in? Of course not. But it would establish some conversation for a team that has flatlined in the last three weeks after a hot run that made it look like a postseason bet. Right now, Utah is on only two of BracketMatrix.com's 112 projections, the 12th team outside of the field. That's a long way out, but it's conceivable if Utah can beat the Ducks, then it can at least establish some credibility as long as it can win its last four regular season games (toughest games are Cal and Stanford at home) and then show well in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Without a win over Oregon? Utah's resume will pop about as much as a marshmallow in a jar of mayonnaise. And running the table in Vegas is just about the only option remaining to make it three straight years.
Suffice to say there's not much logical reason to think Utah will succeed. It opened as a double-digit underdog, and has an eight-game losing streak against Oregon that speaks to just what a match-up nightmare that team is. But if you're like coach Larry Krystkowiak, who declared his glass to be half-full on his radio show on Monday, and you're looking for hope, hope is not dead.
Not yet, anyway.
Time, Place and [radio waves in] Space • The Utes head to Eugene, where they haven't won since 1951. The game tips off at Matthew Knight Arena on ESPN (yes, THE ESPN). There's been a change-up on the call: Bill Walton isn't doing the game, but Fran Fraschilla is with everyone's favorite deadpan play-by-play man Dave Pasch (one Walton a week is probably enough for him). As always, Bill and Jimmy call the game on ESPN 700 AM for you firesiders.
The Line • As of Wednesday evening, Oregon is favored by 9.5 points according to Vegas Insider. The Utes are 12-10-1 against the spread this season. Utah beat the spread in its last game against Washington for only its second cover in its last six games.
Pregame Quotable • Asked if intrasquad competition for playing time might be wearing players out, Larry Krystkowiak didn't seem to appreciate the notion: "I hope not. Shame on them if that's a grind. They can make it a lot easier if they play better in practice, and it would be less of a grind on me, too. We're not mentally strong and don't have enough grit if that's the case. I don't know any other thing to answer that one with. It's not touchy feely time where we're worried about trying to hurt people's feelings. We're trying to win games. There's not a single one who's on the floor because I have a better relationship with his parents or with his coach, or I want to have him succeed. It's hoops. It's survival-of-the-fittest time of year."
Last time out • Foiled again. Utah got out to a hot start, leading for most of the first half, but couldn't close late against the Ducks. Utah made it as close as four points late, but missed its final four shots of the game to falter down the stretch. Kyle Kuzma had a game-high 18 points, but 15 turnovers helped cost them. David Collette sat much of the game with foul trouble (25 minutes) and Lorenzo Bonam and Devon Daniels didn't have the same effectiveness that they had enjoyed a week earlier. It's been hard to recapture the spark of Utah's offense since that game.
Telling Stat • Mentioned in the notes about the phenomenon of Utah's slow starts: The Utes are 16-0 when leading at halftime. A related stat: Utah struggles to come back. It is 1-8 when trailing at halftime, and 0-7 when trailing with five minutes left. Establishing a lead early is critical.
Ducks Roster Overview • Dillon Brooks is not great at flopping, but he's great at many other things: passing (3.0 apg), driving, defending (1.2 spg) and shooting (41.0 3-point percentage). He's particularly great against the Utes: He's averaged 20.2 ppg in six career wins against them. His threat helps Oregon construct threats around him. Tyler Dorsey has picked it up in the last few games around the perimeter, scoring at least 19 points in his last three games. Chris Boucher's 3-point touch is down this year, but he can put down a mean dunk and he's still the Pac-12's best shot-blocker (2.7 bpg). His front-court mate is Jordan Bell, who has improved offensively (15 points against Utah in January) while also leading the team in rebounding and steals. Dylan Ennis does a bit of everything in the point guard role, while Payton Pritchard and Casey Benson come of the bench as both capable passers and shooters. The Ducks are a good offensive team, but elite defensively, ranking as KenPom's No. 18 team in defensive efficiency. This stems from their ability to block shots better than anyone in the country (6.9 bpg) but also an incredibly good perimeter defense (30.6 3-point percent for opponents). The only areas where they are truly mediocre is giving up 12.3 turnovers per game (they still have a net-positive margin) and not getting to the free throw line too often (7th in the Pac-12). Other than that, the Ducks are basically rock-solid.
Behind Enemy Lines • A warning: Chris Boucher will have all the motivation in the world to play well this weekend. His family is coming to see him play live at Oregon for the first time, according to The Oregonian.
Something's Gotta Give • Utah's will to defend versus Boucher's and Bell's ability to cherry pick. The last few games have can be characterized by how easy some of Oregon's second-half baskets have been. It's the same formula: Utah starts out well, defending in a zone. At some point, an Oregon player Brooks, or Dorsey or Benson or someone gets dribble penetration, forcing the Utah defender to move up to help. This leads to a guillotine play: The slasher finds either Boucher or Bell waiting in the wing for an easy dunk. The Huntsman Center could've used a flight control tower in the Jan. 26 meeting by the end of the game. It'll be a trick for Utah to maintain discipline and not get crunched by those easy plays again. Name of the game: deny, deny, deny.
Oregon's Edge • Last game didn't end well in the 3-point shooting department for Utah, which was only 6 for 19. That's still better than many teams fare against the Ducks, who have the best 3-point defense in the Pac-12. Here's the 3-point shooting percentages for Utah in the five games since: 50, 28.6, 41.7, 13.3, 47.8. It's either boom or bust for the Utes lately, and they'll have to hit a huge boom to get the better of Oregon's active and engaged perimeter defenders.
Utah's Edge • The Utes must, must, must win the rebounding battle again. While outmuscling Oregon on the boards doesn't guarantee a win, it puts Utah more in the ballpark to notch the upset. Krystkowiak has said ahead of the last few Oregon games that Utah works a lot on rebounding in practices leading up to it. Last time out, Utah won the glass 33-28, including nine offensive rebounds (five by Kyle Kuzma). In a game in which a lot of shots will be blocked and deflected, Utah has to fight for those second chance opportunities. Fortunately for the Utes, Oregon is merely average on the defensive glass (70 percent, No. 204 on KenPom).
Injury Watch • Should be good to go(?). It's hard to type that without feeling someone will be a surprise scratch.
Watch Out For • Who gets to control tempo? According to Hoop-Math.com, the Utes are No. 20 in effective field goal percentage when taking a shot within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock (62.8 percent). Oregon allows only a 45.5 effective field goal percentage, but that rises close to 50 percent in transition. The Utes would rather score on fast breaks than against Oregon's three-quarters zone, which slowed them down last time. That will require stops, defensive rebounds and guards simply being willing to push tempo rather than resetting and allowing the Ducks to get in their devastating defensive scheme.