Preview: Utah at ASU

The Oregon road trip was not kind to Arizona State, who is still searching for its first conference win. The good news? After opening Pac-12 play with three straight road games, ASU returns to the friendly confines of Wells Fargo Arena, where they have an 8-1 mark this season. The bad news? Their opponent on Thursday night is the No. 8 ranked Utah Utes, who have dominated the Pac-12 thus far.

Arizona State (8-8, 0-3) limps into Thursday’s matchup with more questions than answers – especially on the offensive end – where the Sun Devil have looked anemic the last few weeks. After posting a season-high 93 points against Detroit, they have not scored more than 56 points in the last four games. Even their three-point shooting, a major strength at the beginning of the season, has been non-existent over the four-game stretch. The Sun Devils have connected on a mere 16 of 67 (23.9 percent) from beyond the arc. In addition to their shooting woes, the Sun Devils continue to struggle with ball control and free-throw shooting, especially in the latter stages of the game.

Coach Herb Sendek has tried to be proactive – using a variety of different players to find the perfect combination – but has found limited success. Sendek tinkered with the lineup yet again during the Oregon game, re-inserting Kodi Justice as the team’s starting point guard, while bringing Gerry Blakes off the bench for the first time this season. Sendek recently told reporters that he will use Justice and Tra Holder, both freshmen, as the primary point guards for the remainder of the season. If they can manage to provide steady play at the point, it would be a substantial boost for the Sun Devils, who hope to right the ship before it’s too late.

Utah (13-2, 3-0) is entering the game fresh off a resounding sweep of the L.A. schools at home. The Runnin’ Utes, who are ranked in the AP top-10 for the first time since 1999, have bulldozed Pac-12 opponents this season. In three conference games, the Utes’ average margin of victory has been 27 points – an impressive feat considering two of those wins came against UCLA and Colorado – who were both picked to finish in the top half of the conference. All-American candidate Delon Wright has been the driving force behind Utah’s resurgence. Wright, who is college basketball’s version of the Swiss Army knife, is among the conference leaders in nearly every statistical category. He ranks in the top-10 in scoring, field-goal percentage, assists and steals. And he also ranks in the top-20 in free-throw percentage and blocks.

Although Wright grabs all the headlines, it’s been a consummate team effort for Utah this season. The Utes have as much depth as any team in the Pac-12 and will march out as many as eleven players on any given night. Only two players – Wright and Brandon Taylor – average more than 23 minutes per game, which enables Utah to keep fresh bodies on the floor to employ their suffocating brand of defense. The Utes are holding opponents to 55.1 points per game on 36.4 percent from the field, which ranks 8th and 11th respectively among all Division-I teams. However, Utah is no slouch on the offensive end. In fact, the Runnin’ Utes are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country averaging 75.8 points per game, while shooting 50.1 percent from the field, which also ranks 8th nationally.

The Utes’ seemingly have no glaring weakness – and now have a strong supporting cast around Wright. Returning upperclassmen Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Dakari Tucker have been solid all season long. And 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. The Austrian-born post player has NBA GM’s drooling with his unique skill set. Add all this together and it’s easy to see why some are labeling Utah as a dark horse Final Four team.

Probable Starters:

G – Kodi Justice (4.3 PPG, 39% 3PT) vs. Brandon Taylor (9.7 PPG, 42% 3PT)

G – Roosevelt Scott (4.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG) vs. Delon Wright (14.9 PPG, 5.7 APG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11 PPG, 4.6 RPG) vs. Jordan Loveridge (10.8 PPG, 47% 3PT)

F – Savon Goodman (10.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG) vs. Chris Reyes (4.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG)

F – Eric Jacobsen (10.2 PPG, 66% FG) vs. Jakob Poeltl (9.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils have played strong at home (24-2) over the last two seasons. Conversely, Utah has struggled away from Salt Lake City the last two years, with a 4-12 record in true road games and neutral site games. The Utes’ only two losses this season (at San Diego State and versus Kansas at a neutral site) came away from the Huntsman Center. It may be a stretch, but at this juncture, ASU will take any advantage they can get. The Sun Devils are still a work in progress, but have shown glimpses of their potential at various stages in the season. After a bumpy start to conference play, ASU is overdue to have a bounce-back game.

Why Utah Can Win: The Utes are one of the best two-way teams in college basketball, with a ridiculous scoring margin of 20.7, which ranks sixth in the country. They also do a terrific job of controlling the boards, which is indicative of their plus-9 rebounding margin (12th in the country). If they simply hold serve and play Utah basketball, they should leave Tempe with their seventh straight win.

Key Stat: Arizona State has struggled mightily in closing out games. On the season, the Sun Devils are 0-5 in games decided by five points or less.

X-Factor: Savon Goodman. After a hot start to his season, the power forward has been ice-cold in Pac-12 play. In three games, Goodman is averaging only 4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, while logging only 18.7 minutes per contest due to foul trouble. Against one of the best rebounding teams in the country, ASU will need Goodman to stay out of foul trouble and return to form as a dominant low-post presence.

Final Score Prediction: Utah 74, ASU 60

*The game tips off at 8pm MT and will be televised on Fox Sports 1. Radio listeners can tune in to 98.7 FM to catch the game.

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