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For a player who shoots over 67 percent from the field, Jakob Poeltl has, at times, been a surprisingly quiet component of Utah's offense.
In 12 conference games, he's taken more than six shots only twice. That's been thanks to a combination of foul trouble, an ankle injury suffered against Arizona, and perhaps a struggle to stay properly conditioned, Larry Krystkowiak suggested Sunday after the Utes routed California.
But when Poeltl gets moving, he's hard sometimes impossible to stop. Cal's Kingsley Okoroh didn't want any part of the 7-footer as Poeltl went for 18 points on 7 for 9 shooting against the Bears and grabbed six offensive rebounds.
"He was really solid," Krystkowiak said. "Got some confidence back."
When he's on, Utah is a more complete team. And that's something the Utes will need in March.
Ranked No. 9 in this week's AP poll, the Utes (20-4, 10-2) have inspired some awe with the way they've rolled over conference opponents, particularly at home. Much of that can be attributed to veteran leadership in the backcourt, starting with Delon Wright, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge.
But if there was a theme for the week, it's that inside presence wins games. Poeltl's pick and rolls to the basket were winners against a Cal team that was undermanned up front. Poeltl was in foul trouble against Stanford, but Dallin Bachynski took on the role of inside finisher with 13 points.
In the two games, both first halves were competitive, with Cal and Stanford making things close and even leading for stretches. But Utah's second-half shot charts were the same in each game: Almost all the Utes' 2-point attempts were at the rim or within five feet of the basket.
Since crashing in with three double-doubles in his first seven games, Poeltl has been a more muted offensive presence. He said Sunday that it's part of his learning process, from getting a feel for the officiating to banging with opponents who aren't afraid to be physical.
"Conference play is much different," he said. "It has been a little harder than non-conference. I'm just trying to get used to things."
In Salt Lake City, the hope is that Poeltl or any of Utah's front court players steps up to become a consistent inside finisher, which forces defenses to collapse and open up shooters. When Poeltl is at his best, there is no easy answer to stop the attack. When he's not at his best, the results don't go well: He averages only 6.5 points in Utah losses.
It is also evident that if the Utes make a deep run in the postseason, they'll need the Austrian to step up in matchups with other big men. Poeltl was named to a group of 15 finalists for the nation's best center on Monday, but so was Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Villanova's Daniel Ochefu and UNC's Jody Meeks.
Other teams in the top 10 boast solid if unspectacular bigs as well who convert close to the rim. Gonzaga has Przemek Karnowski and Domantis Sabonis, two of the biggest centers in the country who are as hard to guard as their names are to spell. Even within the conference, Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski created problems for Utah last time out with his physicality.
The Utes are a tournament-bound team at this point, and most analysts predict a top-4 seed. But the key to going deep will be getting consistency from the bigs: When Utah faces down some tall playmakers in March, they'll need a front court that can measure up.
No. 9 Utah at Oregon State
P Thursday, 8 p.m. TV • Pac-12