Who Are You: Utah

Kevin Danna brings his insights and observations heading into Thursday evening's home contest versus the Utah Runnin' Utes at Maples Pavilion.

If I told you that the next team on Stanford's schedule was 14-7 all-time against the Cardinal and hadn't lost to Stanford in almost 40 years, you'd probably be a little concerned.

And, had this match-up taken place just five short years ago when Kevo was but a sophomore and still breastfeeding from the sage knowledge of head manager Josh Johnson, you'd have good reason to be concerned.

While this Stanford team is similar in youth to the 2006-07 Trent Johnson squad, the opposition has had serious regression pains and is in big time rebuilding mode.

It's the Utah Runnin' Utes, Stanford's hoop court foe on Thursday night and the newest member of the Pac-12 by a few days.

It's hard to imagine a team that has been more behind the eight-ball than Utah, which in addition to joining a new conference, had the not-so-envious position of having a brand spankin' new coaching staff. Larry Krystkowiak has the makings of being a very good head coach in the Pac-12, but as all Cardinal fans know, success takes time.

And success is something that has been in very short supply for the Runnin' Utes this year.  The non-conference was brutal to Utah - not brutal in the sense of a tough schedule, just brutal: A 1-8 start that featured a 30-point loss at Fresno State immediately followed by a 31-point home defeat at the hands of Cal State Fullerton. It wasn't until their tenth game of the season that Utah defeated a D-I school (Doug Oliver's ex - the Idaho State Bengals on December 16).

The Pac-12 opener didn't treat the Runnin' Utes nicely, either. How's a 40-point loss at Colorado for starters?

But maybe, just maybe…this team is starting to turn a corner. In all-black uniforms for the first time in school history, the Runnin' Utes won their Pac-12 home opener in overtime against the Cougs from the Palouse. They followed it up with a hard-fought four-point loss to Washington, a game in which they controlled tempo from start to finish. In fact, at 4-11, Utah has gone 3-3 in their last six after that horrendous start.

Nevertheless, the stats don't look good for Utah. Eleventh in the Pac-12 in scoring offense; 11th in scoring defense. Last in the conference in rebounding margin. Their current position in the conference standings at tied for eighth is actually their best ranking in any team statistical category in the Pac-12.

On a national level, they don't even qualify for three-point field goal percentage because they don't make the minimum five per game, despite more than a third of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc (27 percent three-ballin' will do that to ya). According to this Deseret News article (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700214196/Utah-Utes-basketball-notebook-Road-trip-features-familiar-faces-for-Larry-Krystkowiak.html), only one of the 274 teams that qualify for three-point field goal percentage - Rhode Island- has a lower shooting percentage from beyond the arc than the Runnin' Utes.

But it's not all doom and gloom for Utah, a team that can be tough when they ignore the first part of their namesake. They held Washington, a team full of athletes that like to play at breakneck speed, to zero fast break points for the whole game. Granted, it's a lot easier to control tempo at home, but that's still a very impressive stat. The contest against the Huskies had the feel of a major underdog trying to survive from mandatory to mandatory, and as the game went along, Utah gained more and more confidence, started hitting more shots and put a real scare into the Dawgs before falling just a tad short.

The main reason the Runnin' Utes were able to hang around in the Washington game and knock off the Cougars in OT was because of their premier backcourt player, the one and only Josh Watkins. A short and stocky guard, Watkins is fourth in the conference in scoring and second in the Pac in dimes.  He's tough, he's not bashful in taking it to the hoop and he's very cerebral. Knowing that teams scout him for his driving abilities, Watkins used a pull-up jumper from about 15 feet to send the Cougar game into OT and then hit the game-winning shot in the extra period with the pull-up with three seconds left.

In the Washington game, two plays he made really stood out. On the first, Watkins appeared to trip over Wroten while bringing the ball over to the right wing but somehow saved it from going out of bounds and calling a timeout before help could come over and tie him up.  Not a play that would make a highlight reel, but it highlights the smarts and wherewithal Watkins has to keep his wits in a situation that could have very easily led to a turnover. 

The second play was vintage New York point guard.  Unafraid of Aziz N'Diaye's height, Watkins took it right into the body of the seven-footer and got the layup to go, again showing off his headiness by negating the shot blocker's ability to do what he does best.

With Watkins patrolling the perimeter, center Jason Washburn does the dirty deeds down low, averaging almost seven rebounds per game. That rebounding rate is just about on the one-rebound-per-four-minute pace Krystkowiak wants his posts to be at.

But probably the biggest feature of Washburn's game is his low-post offense.  He has a very nice back to the basket game and utilized the baby hook with success against the Huskies. Pretty good footwork for the kid, too. Probably his biggest drawback is that he is a little slow (he got burned by N'Diaye on at least one occasion) and his frame. His weight (244 L-Beezies) might not seem very light, but he probably needs to put on a few more pounds to make him stouter on the defensive end. Otherwise, the kid is pretty solid and averages double figures.

Quick hitters on a couple of other Utes. Cedric Martin - watch out for this dude in the corner; leads the team in three-point field goal efficiency at 38 percent. Dijon Farr- Mr. Hustle. Second on the team in rebounds and tied for second in steals. Chris Hines - loves to shoot. Dude's got a quick trigger and isn't afraid to take it to the trees down low. Averages the second most shots per game on the team.

That's more or less the Runnin' Utes starting five; it's the group they used against both Washington schools.

On the surface, this one looks like it should be a blowout with one of the top teams in the conference hosting the team that was picked to finish last and has the worst overall record of anybody in the Pac-12. I wouldn't go that far, though. The Utes made huge defensive strides in their first Pac-12 home stand and are at their best when it's a half-court game, seemingly just what Stanford likes (though after that thriller over Oregon State, maybe not). Also, guards have gone off against the Card in the past, and Watkins certainly is capable of a big game.

That being said, I wouldn't expect Stanford to lose, nor would I expect it to be all that close. But I also don't expect to see a repeat of Stanford-Pacific or Colorado-Utah earlier this year; however you want to spin it.

The last time Utah was 4-11 was the 1972-73 season, which was also the last time Stanford beat the Runnin' Utes. Will history repeat itself in Maples Pavilion on Thursday night? All signs point to yes, but as Chris Berman loves to say, that's why they play the game.
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