Where things went right
For Utah, this season was a nice step forward in the right direction. In their first two seasons in the Pac-12, the Runnin' Utes had gone just 8-28 in conference play and were far from competitive in many of their games. In the 2011-2012 season, Utah lost 15 conference games by an average of 18 points; in the 2012-2013 season they lost 13 conference regular season games by an average of 11.3 points. In 2013-2014, Utah lost 9 conference games by an average of 4.7 points. A loss is a loss, but the fact that the Utes were in nearly every game, is encouraging and certainly much better than getting run off the floor on a nightly basis. It also showed that the recruiting efforts by the coaching staff were beginning to pay off. In the rare instance that Utah was competitive in games from 2011 to 2013, you could usually credit the coaching staff for putting together a great plan. In this past season, the game plans by the coaching staff remained solid, but the Utes had players that could go do things on their own and the staff could more rely on the talent of the roster. Larry and his staff have done a great job recruiting and even more talent is on the way for next season.
The Utes had gone through the first two seasons of Pac-12 play without any signature wins other than making a nice run in the 2013 conference tournament. This season, Utah was finally able to get a marquee conference win by knocking off the UCLA Bruins who were ranked #25 at the time and ended up going to the Sweet 16. Defeating the Pac-12's marquee basketball program was huge for the Utes and helped the program garner some positive attention. Utah had nice wins against rival BYU, Arizona State, and Colorado; all of which went to the NCAA Tournament.
The Utes finished conference play with a .500 or better record and reached the 20-win mark for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. The Runnin' Utes going 9-9 was the first time that either basketball or football had gone .500 in Pac-12 play. The bar is obviously a lot higher than just winning half of their conference games, but finishing at .500 is a sign that the program is beginning to compete with the rest of the Pac-12 on a game-to-game basis. Utah also reestablished the Huntsman Center as a tough place for visiting teams. The Utes finished 18-2 at home and in conference play, they won 5 of their 9 home games by 10 or more points.
Utah hasn't had much of a star player for awhile now, but that also changed this past season. Jordan Loveridge had a nice freshman year and so coming into this season, people outside of Salt Lake City were familiar with him. After the 81-64 win against the BYU Cougars, Loveridge was named the CBSSports.com National Player of the Week. During conference play, Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright each earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors; Loveridge the week of December 9-15th and Delon Wright the week of January 13-19thth. Utah didn't have a player earn that award ONCE in the previous two years in the Pac-12. To cap off a tremendous season by Delon Wright, he was named to the First Team All-Pac-12
?squad and also made the Pac-12 All-Defensive team. Earning individual awards isn't the ultimate goal for Larry Krystkowiak and the Utes, but individual awards come because players are playing well and teams are winning games. These awards are the product of having good players and good teams.
One thing that's plagued the Utes the last couple of seasons is embarrassing non-conference losses to the likes of Sacramento State, Cal-State Northridge and Montana State; all of which happened at home. Utah was able to navigate their non-conference schedule without a terrible loss, Now, we can't forget that Utah lost to the lowly Washington State Cougars up in Pullman, but losing on the road to the Cougars is better than losing at home to those teams. Every team has at least one bad loss per year, but you'd rather those bad losses come in conference play than out of it.
Utah didn't look like an actual college basketball squad in 2011 and in just two short years, the starting lineup looks good and there is quality depth coming off
the bench. Kenneth Ogbe, Ahmad Fields, Parker Van Dyke and Princeton Onwas are guys that would've started for that 2011 team, but came off the bench for much of the year and even struggled to see consistent minutes with this team. That depth will increase even more next year.
Where things went wrong
The biggest thing that went wrong for the Utes this year is their horrible non-conference schedule. According to CBS, Utah played the 341st easiest schedule out of 349 teams. I get where the staff was coming from when they scheduled these games, but the non-conference schedule didn't need to be this bad. Yeah the Utes were able to get wins, but they didn't learn how to close out close games or win on the road; two challenges that weren't presented to them in non-conference play. To make the NCAA Tournament, the Utes had to do more work than most teams because of how bad the non-conference schedule was. At 9-9 the Utes could have at least been closer the bubble and given themselves a better chance to make the NCAA Tournament if they had been more ambitious to start the season. Stanford, Colorado and Arizona State finished Pac-12 play by going 10-8 and were comfortably in the tournament, at 9-9 with a better non-conference schedule, the Utes probably go dancing.
The other problems for the Utes this season can be attributed to the non-conference schedule. When games were close, the Utes consistently looked out of place and uncomfortable. They hadn't been in those types of situations before and so they didn't know what to do. Including the NIT game vs. St. Mary's, Utah won just 2 of 11 road games and never could really capitalize on the momentum built at home. The Utes lost those 9 road games by an average of 4.6 points. Playing on the road isn't the big issue for the Utes, their biggest challenge is finishing on the road. The late game execution is still a mess for Utah and there wasn't much progress made between their first and last losses of the season. The
Utes didn't have a clear-cut leader that you could trust as games went down to the wire. The plays coming out of the huddle were often disorganized especially in late game situations. A leader must develop for the Utes whether it's Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge or Delon Wright. Next year, when games are close, who has the ball, who takes the shot? Figuring out that is absolutely crucial for the Utes if they want to have a season that that roster is capable of.
What do the Utes need to accomplish next year.
Utah will have a bigger target on their backs heading into next year. It won't be anything like the targets that Arizona or UCLA will have, but teams now respect the Utes and understand that they are a quality team. To start things off next year, the Utes need to challenge themselves in non-conference play. On paper, Utah's roster will be an NCAA Tournament-caliber team and so the non-conference schedule needs to be one that matches that, but also allows for chemistry to develop. Utah doesn't need to go play road games against Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Florida, Kentucky and Michigan State, but they do need to go on the road and schedule teams that will challenge themselves. Utah has a road game at BYU and a neutral site game in Kansas City vs. the Kansas Jayhawks scheduled for next year, but Larry needs to continue to work on that to make sure it doesn't resemble the schedule of this past season. I would love to see the Utes schedule upper echelon teams from both the West Coast and Mountain West Conferences. Utah has strong history with teams from the Mountain West Conference and scheduling those teams would not only be a challenge for the Utes, but many fans would
enjoy it as well. To start things off, Utah needs to put together a much better non-conference schedule.
Utah's three best players, Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright will all be upperclassmen next year, they've been in close games for a while now and so we can't point to inexperience if they continue to lose close games. Larry needs to allow his best players to have the ball in crunch time. The equal opportunity offense is nice at times, but when games come down to the wire, give your best player the ball. This is why scheduling tougher opponents to begin the season is
so crucial, it gives the squad challenges to start the season so that bonds will be creating and carried on throughout the rest of the season. Closing out close games is a must for the Utes next year. If they improve on that, they'll comfortably make the NCAA Tournament.
Utah needs to finish with a winning record in conference play and near a .500 record on the road. Doing both of these things will put Utah in a great position to earn a first round bye come conference tournament time. I do believe that Utah can accomplish all of things listed above for next year. It will be a talented team that played together the season before and is coached by one of the best in the conference.
Utah Basketball Season in Review
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