Since We Last Spoke: Utah

Kevin Danna brings his updated insights and observations heading into Saturday afternoon's away contest versus the Utah Runnin' Utes at the Huntsman Center.

Going into this weekend, a split on the road against the Mountain schools looked like the most probable outcome for the Stanford Cardinal, as the Farm Boys were three-point ‘dogs on Thursday night. But after a 74-50 thumping of Tad Boyle's Colorado Buffaloes, a split would be extremely disappointing.

That's because the team on the back-end of this two-game roadie is Utah, a squad that has been in a world of hurt since the season started. At 5-22 and 2-13 in conference play, it would appear that the Runnin' Utes would offer little-to-no resistance to a Stanford team fresh off a 24-point beat-down of a team that is in the running for a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.

Not so fast though. I'm sure everyone reading this article remembers well the gruesome 68-65 victory for Stanford over Utah in Maples Pavilion last month. Although the Farm Boys came out victorious, it was probably their worst performance of the season. Five for 17 free-throwing and 18 turnovers for Stanford in that game - hell, if Utah had hit more than half of its free throws, the Runnin' Utes would have won the damn thing! Instead, Utah was 1-9 as a team from the charity stripe and fell in what was their best road performance of the season (Utah has yet to win a road game this year).

Another thing about the Huntsman Hunks - they play HARD; if only the Phil Matthews-led USF Dons of the late-‘90s and early 2000's could lend Krystkowiak their shooting shirts! Colorado only knocked off the Runnin' Utes last weekend by seven points for a reason, and it wasn't because Colorado played terribly (we've been through what happened the first 12 minutes of that game, but outside of that, Colorado wasn't all that bad). Utah made everything difficult on the Buffaloes and forced them to work for every bucket that wasn't out of a timeout set. Colorado was clearly the better team, but Utah certainly had their moments.

They got into a good rhythm offensively in the second half. Jason Washburn was a handful down low, finishing nicely and quickly around the basket en route to a 16-point, 10-rebound performance. The guy has touch and is pretty skilled. I still think he's a little slow and that he needs work on the defensive end, but he can certainly be a pill on the offensive end.

The Runnin' Utes were also pretty effective from downtown, hitting six of their first 14 three-point attempts before missing their final five. Now to be fair, they did bank in two threes in the first half, and neither was intentional - Dijon Farr's offering from the left wing was simply completely off target and Chris Hines' banker came from just about even with the basket on the right baseline. I've seen that shot made once before in my life, and it was from somebody who didn't come close to making the cut on our high school basketball team (but who am I to speak- I got cut too and it wasn't even close).

There is one big difference on the Utah team from when Stanford played the Utes last - their leading scorer has been sent packing. That's Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, who was averaging a cool 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. The Pac-12's very own Khalid El-Amin allegedly got the boot for repeating similar actions that got him suspended for one game earlier in the season, which included sleeping through class and being late to practice, according to this Salt Lake City Tribune Article.   I interviewed Krystkowiak less than a week before he kicked Watkins off the team, and in hindsight, I realize that I sort of sensed that Coach K wasn't a big Watkins fan. I asked him what Watkins meant to the team beyond the points and assists stats, and he pretty much just described how Watkins scores and drops dimes. You can re-read the Q&A - maybe I'm reading too much into it, because he does compliment Watkins quite a bit - but he wasn't exactly heaping praise on his all-everything like you would expect most coaches to.

In any case… Without their go-to, who was going to pick up the slack?

Junior guard Chris Hines has done his best filling the shoes left behind by Jiggy, averaging 11.5 points per game since Watkins has been gone. And regardless of how ugly Hines' three may have looked against Colorado in that one instant, the Ute actually leads the conference in three-pointers made per game in conference games only at 2.5 per contest. In contrast, Cardinal fans probably remember him more for his ability to get to the rack at will on Stanford en route to 21 points. He certainly has the capability of scoring from anywhere on the court.

Cedric Martin has also picked up his scoring, averaging more than 12 points in the last five games leading up to this weekend. He has also helped out in the assists category, where Watkins also left a gaping hole, combining for 12 assists and just one turnover in the two previous games leading up to Thursday's 60-46 loss against Cal (what nobody is talking about: both Cal men's and women's basketball teams beat Utah's men's and women's basketball teams by a score of 60-46 on Thursday night. How often has that happened?).

The other guy helping out with the dimes is the true freshman Kareem Storey, who has started at the "1" since Watkins' dismissal. In those starts, Storey is averaging 7.7 points and 5.0 assists while sporting a 1.6:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Utah is at their best when they muck it up, so to speak - hold on to the ball for 20 seconds before getting into much offense and limit the number of possessions the game can possibly have. They are at an athletic disadvantage at every spot on the floor, so grinding the game to a halt gives them the best chance to neutralize the opposition's comparative athleticism.

And, although Utah will have its first losing record at home in 38 years, Coach K's team has been pretty tough to beat at the Huntsman Center. Washington State and Arizona State found that out harshly - the Cougars lost in OT and the Sun Devils never had a chance, falling by 21. Colorado was able to escape last weekend with a W. Same with Washington back in the second weekend of conference play - the Utes were pretty much step-for-step with the Pac-12 frontrunners the whole way before dropping the contest by four. Hell, even Cal was tied with the Runnin' Utes at halftime.

Stanford should win, and if Thursday is any indication, it shouldn't be close to being close. But then again, Utah is perhaps the worst road team in a BCS conference and didn't fall to the Cardinal until a last-second three point attempt was airmailed from 30-feet out.

As long as Stanford limits the turnovers and improves the free-throw shooting as compared to the January 12 game against Utah, they should be in good shape. But even those things being corrected won't mean a double-digit road victory: Washington only committed eight turnovers against Utah in Salt Lake City; Washington State only ten in 45 minutes; Colorado only 12 and shot 79 percent from the charity stripe.

In any case, a win for the Cardinal puts them at 20 and clinches their first winning conference record under the watchful eye of Johnny Dawkins. It also keeps Stanford in serious contention for a top-half Pac-12 finish, which would mean avoiding having to play Cal or Washington in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament should Stanford win its first round game.

Get ready for a potentially "ugly" basketball game. Doesn't matter how it looks, though, as long as the Card can complete the sweep.
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