Utah Preview

Jan. 3 -- The UCLA basketball team tries to save the Mountain road trip to start conference play, taking on the #10 Utes on Sunday, but it's not a favorable match-up...

The UCLA Bruins return to the court Sunday afternoon when the Bruins travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Running Utes of Utah and head coach Larry Krystkowiak (1 PM PST, Pac-12 Network).

The #10-ranked Utes are 11-2 and won their Pac-12 opener very easily on Friday over USC. Meanwhile, the Bruins are coming off a very dispiriting six-point setback against an undermanned Colorado squad. The UCLA season went through a major crossroad on Friday night and with the loss to the Buffaloes the Bruins are staring down a possible 0-4 start to the conference season with Stanford and California coming to Pauley Pavilion next week.

To be blunt, the Utah game has the makings of an ugly loss for the Bruins that could further highlight the deficiencies of UCLA’s on-court product in its entirety.

Utah truly presents a match-up nightmare for the Bruins because the Utes excel in virtually every area in which the Bruins struggle, starting with the coaching. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has, quite frankly, struggled tactically this season. It is appearing more and more that the 2013-2014 version of the Bruin offense, which flowed so effortlessly at times, was a product of the NBA talent on the floor rather than because of a great tactical concept employed by the coaching staff. Now Alford and the Bruins will be facing arguably the best tactical coach in the Pac-12 in Krystkowiak.

What the former Montana star has done in Salt Lake City is pretty remarkable, especially when considering that three seasons ago the Utes were one of the worst high-major programs in the country. Utah is not an easy place to recruit, but Krystkowiak has done a great job of evaluating talent and getting that talent to play at its maximum efficiency. Utah has the best team defense in the conference and is among the best in the country, and that’s not simply from looking at the statistics. Watching Utah play halfcourt team defense is a reminder of Ben Howland’s three Final Four teams and their defensive prowess. Utah isn’t filled with NBA-level talent and yet they are a legitimate Final Four threat because of their ability to play defense and the buy-in the team has to Krystkowiak’s concepts. Obviously an elite athletic team like Kentucky can embarrass the Bruins, but so can a controlled, disciplined team, especially when considering how loose the Bruins are on offense. For UCLA to have any chance then Alford needs to coach his best game since his arrival in Westwood. This includes game preparation, when Alford can speak to his players and instill in them that, when a player has gone 2-16 from the floor, the player should probably look for other ways to impact the game other than trying to score. However, this year’s experience has proved that is probably too much to expect.

Utah may not be stacked with NBA talent, but the Utes do have arguably the best player in the conference so far this season in senior point guard Delon Wright (6’5” 190 lbs.) (Pictured Above). Wright does so many things well, but perhaps the most impressive is his 15.4 PPG, all within the flow of Krystkowiak’s offense. Funny, but Wright actually looks to involve his teammates first, letting the offense flow before looking to score. He has an almost 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is shooting over 58% from the floor. His size and length make him difficult to guard and he is excellent at using his height to see over opposing defenders and get Utah into its effective halfcourt sets. On Friday against USC, Wright had 11 points and 10 assists, against only 1 turnover, while shooting 50% from the floor. He is going to be very difficult for UCLA to defend. When he himself is on deense, he uses his height and length to great advantage as Krystkowiak allows him to pressure an opponent’s point of attack. UCLA’s Bryce Alford is going to have to have the best game of his young Bruin career for UCLA to even be in the game.

If Wright weren’t enough to cause Coach Alford headaches, the Bruins also have to deal with the return of junior Jordan Loveridge (6’6” 222 lbs.), who has arguably gotten more out of his raw talent in his time at Utah than any other player in the Pac-12. He scored a team-leading 14 points on Friday against the Trojans and did it without forcing the action. He was 5-8 from the floor and pulled down 6 boards. Not bad for a player who has been out for more than 6 weeks. UCLA’s Kevon Looney will have the responsibility of guarding Loveridge and Looney looked very much out of sorts against Colorado, who had no one on the level of Loveridge. What makes Loveridge so difficult to defend is his ability to not only play with his back to the basket, but he is among the best three-point shooters in the conference at 56%. Loveridge’s experience and ability, coupled with what is now a clearly fatigued (or dispirited) Looney, may see the Utah forward go off for 20-plus.

If that weren’t enough, the Bruins will have to contend with arguably the freshman of the year so far in the conference in Austrian (and example of Krystkowiak’s ability to evaluate) Jakob Poeltl (7’0” 235 lbs.). Poeltl is averaging 9.8 PPG and 8.2 RPG and is shooting almost 66% from the floor. He has added a dimension to the Utah offense that was missing in the past, namely a true back-to-the-basket post that has the ability to score and pass as well as being able to recognize when to do both. He is also the best shot-blocker in Salt Lake City since Krystkowiak’s arrival and has 29 blocks on the season. UCLA’s Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh will have their hands full with Poeltl, who is playing with as much confidence as any freshman the Bruins have yet seen outside of a Kentucky uniform.

The two other starters, junior Brandon Taylor (5’10” 167 lbs.) and sophomore Chris Reyes (6’7” 230 lbs.), are exactly the kinds of players any program needs -- 3-4 year players who know exactly what their roles are and don’t try to deviate from those.

Taylor is the shooting guard when Wright is on the floor but he has the ability to run the point well enough when asked to do so. He is averaging 9.7 PPG and is the primary three-point threat on the squad, having attempted 56 shots from behind the arc. He is a very good on-ball defender, which, coupled with Wright’s defensive prowess, makes it very difficult for Utah’s opponents to run their halfcourt sets. He is quick, though not lightning quick, so he has the ability to get to the basket, but he is very good at recognizing holes in the defense where he can spot up and shoot off kick-outs from a driving Wright or a posted-up Poeltl.

Reyes is that glue guy that every successful team needs. Quick, name the Bruin who could possibly be termed glue guy. Exactly the point. Reyes doesn’t excel at anything, but Krystkowiak knows what he’ll get from Reyes. He’ll defend, rebound and hit the open shot when asked, as his 50% shooting indicates. He’s the guy that will dive after every loose ball and not back down when challenged by an opponent. UCLA has no one like him on the roster.

Although Krystkowiak runs a 10-player rotation, with the three bench players getting the most minutes being junior Dakarai Tucker (6’5” 195 lbs.), sophomore Kenneth Ogbe (6’6” 190 lbs.) and true freshman Brekkott Chapman (6’8” 200 lbs.).

Tucker and Ogbe are similar players in that they are both primarily outside shooters and play solid, active defense. If nothing else, they allow Krystkowiak to go to his bench and know there won’t be a terrible drop-off on either end of the floor. This is in stark contrast to UCLA’s bench, which officially provides about 8 PPG but in reality has only given the Bruins about 2-4 PPG when not facing cupcake competition.

Chapman is the top recruit of Utah’s 2014 class, one that UCLA was recruiting for a while. He is talented, but still a bit slight of frame. There’s been little pressure on him as he learns the game from Loveridge, and his 7.6 PPG and 3.4 RPG, all in only 17 MPG, are a luxury. He seems comfortable in his role and has quickly picked up Krystkowiak’s defensive concepts. This is a far cry from UCLA Gyorgy Golomon, who has some upside but isn’t contributing much and looks lost on defense.

Krsytkowiak’s Utes are the closest things to Ben Howland’s best UCLA teams that the conference has seen since those heady days of three UCLA Final Fours. They play excellent halfcourt defense and are very good in getting back in transition. UCLA is going to have to operate in the halfcourt at a level not seen since last season and Kyle Anderson if UCLA is to even stay close.

The Ute offense is as efficient as the defense, sharing the ball about as well as any team in the country. The USC game from Friday night is a prime example, as no Ute shot the ball more than 8 times, and three players had 8 attempts. Contrast that with UCLA from Friday in Boulder and it’s rather easy to see why UCLA is struggling offensively and Utah is among the most efficient offensive teams in the country.

This will be the second game in less than 48 hours for the Bruins at altitude and that doesn’t bode well for UCLA. Looney already looks like he’s hit the freshman wall while Bryce Alford clearly struggled with his shot on Friday, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that had as much to do with his trouble adapting his shot and game to the altitude as it did to Colorado’s defense. UCLA can’t even count on winning the rebounding battle, with Utah being one of the most efficient rebounding teams in the nation. The only statistical category where UCLA seems a bit better is turnovers, but that doesn’t take into account shot selection, where some of UCLA’s decisions this season have had the effect of turnovers.

This game will represent quite the contrast, with a well-disciplined, well-coached team playing at home facing a team that struggles with decision-making and a coach that hasn’t shown the same tactical nous yet this season.

This may be a bit extreme, but this game certainly has the trappings of a loss as devastating as the Kentucky game from a competitive standpoint. The game won’t be on national television and Utah doesn’t have the same recognition as the Wildcats, but for those who know basketball this game could get just as ugly. Utah won’t put up 90 points simply because Utah’s offense isn’t designed to do that, but there is an outside chance that UCLA could struggle to reach 40 points. UCLA is averaging 53 points in its last two games on the road against teams not exactly known for defense. Again, for those who know basketball, scoring less than 40 would be another heavy indictment as to the state of things in Westwood.

It’s ironic that UCLA will be looking at an opposing coach who, from a tactical standpoint and as a teacher of the game, will closely resemble a more user-friendly version of Ben Howland, whose style many fans bemoaned. Right now, just about every UCLA fan on the planet would gladly trade the Bruins’ current style of play for Krystkowiak/Howland brand. In fact, should UCLA decide to make a coaching change in the future, perhaps one of the first calls should be to Salt Lake City.

Utah 74
UCLA 44

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