The UCLA men's basketball team returns to action on Saturday afternoon when the Bruins travel to Salt Lake City to take on suddenly trendy Utah at the Jon Huntsman Center. Tip-off is slated for 1 PM PST and the game will be telecast live on Fox Sports 1.
The game represents an opportunity for both teams to consolidate a solid start to the New Year, especially for UCLA. The Bruins can travel home on Saturday night knowing that they swept one of the toughest road trips in the Pac 12. Further, the Bruins would be set up to carry momentum into the home games next week against the Bay Area schools.
Utah is looking to regain some national mojo of its own and it appears that Utah has turned a bit of a corner. Much of this can be attributed to head coach and alumnus Larry Krystkowiak, who has instilled a toughness and desire in this squad that was missing for years before his arrival. It has been a bit of a difficult journey for Krystkowiak, as his first few Ute teams were simply horrible. Last year's version of the squad began to find some life and consistency about halfway through the season. This year's team is a bit of a surprise at 13-4, 2-3 in the conference.
Unlike Colorado, which the Bruins defeated on Thursday, Utah is definitely a cohesive unit right now. Krystkowiak plays a solid seven-player rotation, with the occasional extra piece depending on the game and matchup. However, the key is the first seven.
Utah is driven by two players, one known and other fairly unknown. Sophomore Jordan Loveridge (6'6" 210 lbs.) is Utah's "name" player, leading the Utes in points (16.4 PPG) and rebounds (8.2 RPG). He has an unusual body in that he really is a low post player in terms of strength, but his height is more of a wing. He is solid scoring in the low post and has improved his range out to the three-point line, where he is connecting on 30% of his shots this season. However, the key to defending Loveridge is keeping him off the boards. If the Bruins (specifically Kyle Anderson, who may be matched up on Loveridge during the game) can control Loveridge's rebounding then the Bruins should find success.
The player that most people don't know, and perhaps the best player on the Ute roster, is combo guard Delon Wright (6'5" 178 lbs.), a junior college transfer in his first year in Salt Lake City. It took a bit for the junior to get into the swing of things, but he has become the best player on the roster of late. For example, during Thursday's blowout win over USC, Loveridge struggled while Wright scored 22 points and was the best player on the floor. He averages 15.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG and has 46 steals on the season, for an average of almost three per game. Quite simply, he is the toughest match-up on Utah for the Bruins to defend, so UCLA will likely call on Norman Powell and/or Zach LaVine.
The Wright match-up becomes more difficult because of the presence of sophomore combo guard Brandon Taylor (5'10" 165 lbs.). Taylor is averaging 10.5 PPG and has taken the most three-point attempts on the season. Along with Wright and Loveridge, Taylor averages over 30 MPG. While he is a bit diminutive in size, Taylor isn't the jitterbug-quick point guard that has bothered UCLA. He is certainly quick, but not amazingly so. He is a very good free throw shooter, but he hasn't been to the line enough to suit Krystkowiak. Taylor's size and relative quickness means that Jordan Adams probably can't guard him, and if Powell needs to guard Wright, then UCLA Coach Steve Alford faces a dilemma.
The dilemma may force Alford into playing a line-up that many Bruin fans have been clamoring for since early in the season; from a defensive standpoint, one big, Anderson at the four, Adams at the 3 and Powell and Lavine in the backcourt. That would mean that Anderson would guard Loveridge while Powell and Lavine would pick up one of Wright and Taylor. Alford showed a bit more of this line-up against Colorado this past Thursday, when the Bruins steadily pulled away from a disconsolate Buffs squad.
That would lead one of UCLA's three post players as well as Jordan Adams to guard a combination of sophomore center Jeremy Olson (6'10" 232 lbs.), who has been a part time starter, sophomore wing Dakarai Tucker (6'5" 189 lbs.), who is actually one of the better outside shooters on the team and averages 8 PPG, junior center Dallin Bachynski (7' 258 lbs.) who is the younger brother of Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski and plays a similar albeit less talented style, and freshman guard Parker Van Dyke (6'3" 185 lbs.) who is probably the only true point guard on the squad. Obviously the posts will guard Olson and Bachynski, who will never be on the court at the same time, and Adams can handle Tucker, with Van Dyke being the anomaly. Chances are that when he's in that means that either Taylor or Wright is out, thus probably leaving one of LaVine, Powell, or Bryce Alford to guard him.
The key to the game from a personnel standpoint, though, is UCLA's ability to corral one of Loveridge, Wright or Taylor. Certainly against USC, and earlier in the loss at Washington, Loveridge didn't shoot well. While the Utes beat USC handily, the Trojans are not a good team. But Loveridge's cold streak cost Utah in Seattle and even against Wazzu. Krystkowiak quite simply needs his top three to play fairly well, mostly because the rest of his players struggle on the offensive end.
However, Utah has achieved its good record primarily at the other end of the floor. The Utes have the best statistical defense that UCLA has seen yet this season. They are holding opponents to 39% from the floor and 28% from behind the arc. Upon closer inspection, though, Utah and its gaudy defensive statistics may be a bit a creation of its own cupcake-filled schedule. The Utes have beaten Savannah State, Idaho State, Lamar (which has one win on the season), Evergreen State, Grand Canyon, Texas State and St. Katherine (which was the team that Weber State defeated by about 80 points about six weeks ago). Their best out-of-conference win came against a decent but not great BYU squad in a game the Utes were sure to circle on their calendar anyway because of the natural rivalry. This Utah team may be a bit of a paper tiger. And its stats are certainly inflated because of the low level of competition it has played.
Conversely, Utah is a pretty good shooting team from the floor (over 50%), but the Utes are less than average from behind the arc, where they are a combined 33% as a team. That would typically mean that UCLA should come out in a zone, but Utah rebounds at about the same rate as Colorado, with an impressive 8 rebound average advantage over its opponents. Again, that may be inflated, but it is still impressive. UCLA was able to beat Colorado on the boards because Alford stuck to man defense almost the whole game and because the Bruins had, for stretches, a lineup of one big, Anderson, Adams, Lavine and Powell.
Utah is in many ways similar to Colorado. Both coaches want to control pace at a relatively slower tempo. They want good shot selection. They dominate the glass and they play good defense, especially on the outside. The differences, however, are significant. Colorado was off kilter Thursday night because of the Dinwiddie injury. Colorado has more talent, but Utah has more cohesion right now. The home court is a real advantage for these teams, with the altitude likely assisting with UCLA's poor shooting night on Thursday. If that was the case then UCLA should at least have adapted a bit more to the different, thinner air. Plus, Salt Lake City is 1,200 feet lower in elevation than Boulder.
Many fans see this game as the tougher of the two on the road trip. That may be true, but it won't be by much. In fact, don't be surprised if the score is eerily similar.
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