This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Utes will attempt to knife the big blue beast on Friday night in Houston and move on to the Elite Eight on Sunday. They have a chance.
Slap that incredulity off your face.
They do. Really.
Beating one of the most celebrated coaches in the game as Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged on Monday, the "real" Coach K will provide a steep challenge for Utah. Mike Krzyzewski has won four national championships at Duke. He's taken his team to 11 Final Fours and won a thousand games. He's also won a couple of Olympic gold medals as the head coach of Team USA. When you think of college basketball, his image is one of the first that beams up on the big screen in your brain.
But he's also lost to Mercer.
His team this season is playing its best ball right now. There were doubts about the Blue Devils in January, losing back-to-back games to NC State and Miami. They also lost to Notre Dame, twice. Critics thought maybe Duke's key young players would sag further when the lights got the brightest in March.
The opposite has happened.
In two tournament games against Robert Morris and San Diego State Duke has won by 29 and 19 points.
"They've got one of the best backcourts in the country and one of the best big guys in the country and one of the best coaches in the country and one of the best records in the country," Krystkowiak said. "We've got our hands full in a lot of different areas. It's going to be a heck of a challenge."
The challenge starts with freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a big man who likes to play big. Okafor is averaging just short of 24 points a game thus far in the tournament, having made 21 of 27 shots. He's an old-school force in the low post, having mastered all those crafty moves and a deft touch that will make him the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, as well as a major focus on Friday. If he goes off for, say, 30 points, the Utes' run will end.
Justise Winslow, an athletic 6-foot-6 freshman forward, hurt San Diego State in nearly every way a player can hurt an opponent, scoring 13 points, hauling 12 rebounds, passing for five assists, getting four steals and blocking three shots.
And the aforementioned Duke backcourt can punish opponents who pay too much attention to what's happening down on the block. All told in the tournament, the Blue Devils have hit 16 of 35 shots from behind the arc.
It's a difficult thing, containing the Devils.
"It's formidable," Krystkowiak said. "It's hard."
Utah gives itself a shot, though, with its defense. That's been the team's strength all year and it will have to be again in Houston. The Utes rank 11th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 56.9 points a game. The lowest point total scored by Duke in any game this season was 63, in a win over Louisville. The Blue Devils average 80.4 points, which ranks fifth in scoring offense.
It's worth noting that the Aztecs ranked second nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 53.9 points a game, and Duke put 68 on them in Sunday's win. SDSU could scrounge up only 49 points in retaliation, hitting 33 percent of its shots and only 2 of 13 from behind the arc.
The Utes, obviously, will have to find more defense, as well as more proficiency and efficiency at the offensive end.
Although Krystkowiak wasn't about to reveal his plans for slowing Duke down, one tactic might include fouling Okafor. He shoots just 51 percent from the foul line, a much better roll of the dice for the Utes than the big man's impressive 68 percent shooting from the field. Utah doesn't want Jakob Poeltl to tangle himself up in foul trouble, but it has 10 more available fouls in the form of backups Dallin Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen.
Whether that works or not, or is even attempted, the Utes must conjure their most poised, organized effort ever when at the offensive end. Delon Wright will need to impose his will, Poeltl, too. Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge have to knock down perimeter shots. Duke yields this season an average of 64 points, only 52 per game so far in the tournament. Utah will have to outdo that.
But because of the defense they play, the Utes have their chance to stay in every game, including this next one against the Blue Devils. At worst, they will lose, but not be embarrassed. At best, they will win.
They have a shot.
Slap that look of incredulity off your face.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.