Coach Larry Krystkowiak's Utes are trying to stay in the Big Dance conversation at 17-7 overall and 6-6 in the Pac 12 Conference. They have a single solid non-conference victory, over a BYU team that is borderline at best to make the NCAAs and really not much else besides the win against UCLA in Utah in January. That is why a season sweep of the Bruins would go a long way to helping Utah's cause.
As one BRO poster pointed out, UCLA is slowly making its way into contention for the 5/6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win on Saturday and UCLA will begin to move into the conversation for an even higher seed. The Utes, though, thoroughly outplayed the Bruins in Salt Lake City.
One of the recent discussions on the BRO Premium Basketball Board has been the impact of Bryce Alford's good shooting game against Colorado. Regardless, the larger point is UCLA's team defense still spend large chunks of games playing poor defense. It was pretty evident that all of the Bruins who saw time looked lazy (most of them), disinterested (many of them) or simply lost (Wanaah Bail, who had his first minutes in almost one month). UCLA defensively was pretty poor for most of the game in Utah.
The Bruins were so poor in Utah that they made two mediocre shooters, sophomores Brandon Taylor (5'10" 165 lbs.) and Dekarai Tucker (6'5" 189 lbs.), look like world-beaters. The momentum that Utah built in the middle of the first half of that game was the direct result of a couple of three-pointers made by both players. They finished with 20 points between them, which is right around the 18.3 PPG they average right now, but it was the timing of their shots that was infectious. Much of that had to do with making open looks. The easiest way to tell if UCLA is playing with some effort on defense is how they close out on outside shooters (or don't). In the losses to Utah and Oregon State, the Bruins were lousy the vast majority of both games at that. Outside of USC, which has woeful shooters on its roster, any D-1 team is going to have 3 or 4 players that will hit more than 50% of its jumpers if left open like UCLA tends to do, and make stars (for a day) out of guys, like it did in Taylor and Tucker.
Utah, in fact, also has two players who can take over games. The Bruins have to be well-aware of Ute sophomore Jordan Loveridge (6'6" 210 lbs.), who lit up the Bruins in Salt Lake City. Loveridge, is a more natural rebounder than anyone in this game outside of Kyle Anderson and plays bigger than his size, had 17 points and 9 boards against the Bruins. However, he is one of those players that makes those wide-open shots, but struggles when the close-outs get to him.
The other game-changer is junior Delon Wright (6'5" 178 lbs.), a junior college transfer who has been Utah's leading scorer this year. He had a strong but not great game against UCLA last month, with 12 points and 8 boards. He was another Ute who shot at least 50% from the floor, but did all of his damage from inside the paint and the free throw line. Wright is averaging 16.2 PPG overall, but over 17 PPG in conference, however, Wright is shooting at a lower clip from both behind the arc and overall while taking more shots. In short, over the course of the conference season, Wright has become less efficient as a scorer and, actually, Utah's offense has followed that lead.
In the first match-up, while the Bruin defense was porous, the offense was pretty bad, too. The Bruins shot less than 43% for the game, settling for too many jump shots. That's got to be unacceptable to Coach Steve Alford, regardless of UCLA's lack of significant low-post presence. UCLA tends to do that when it panics, breaks down and takes quick shots without ball movement. It tends to happen when UCLA is on the road and, luckily Saturday UCLA is in the friendly confines of Pauley Pavilion.
The intangibles in this game clearly favor UCLA. The Bruins have only lost one Pac- 12 Conference game, and that was to Arizona. UCLA played a poor first half against Colorado on Thursday and still ran away with it the second half, winning by 18 after being down by 12 in the first half. If that had been a road game they more than likely wouldn't have had the composure to make that second-half run. With UCLA clearly being a better team at home, Utah is horrible away from the Huntsman Center, going only 1-5 so far in conference road play. That one win was on Thursday night at USC, which you almost can't count. Granted, Utah has kept most of its road losses close, suffering losses of single digits in all of those games, including an overtime loss to Colorado in Boulder. To Krystkowiak's credit, the Utes have yet to be blown out of a game this season. Their worst loss was at Arizona by 9, which was a game in which the Utes actually led late. So, while Utah hasn't won on the road, it isn't a team that usually completely breaks down on the road – a team that UCLA might not be able to easily mount a 30-point turn against in the second half.
UCLA cannot be lackadaisical in its defense on Saturday or Utah will do exactly what it did to the Bruins in Utah. If UCLA stays active, though, or at least interested in playing defense and rebounding (UCLA won the rebounding battle in Utah by 4), then there is a chance UCLA could hand Utah its first blow-out loss of the season, or at least the first double-digit loss the Utes have suffered.