While the rest of the nation was tuned into college football, the Utah Runnin’ Utes kicked off its 2016-17 basketball season hosting the Northwest Nazarene Crusaders. The Utes add eleven new players to the roster this season and, as can be expected, it will be a work in progress as this team builds chemistry and finds its identity. The first step in building that chemistry came with many miscues and less than stellar play. The Utes struggled in the first half as players were uncertain about what their role would be for this ball club. After a first half full of turnovers, poor decisions and lackluster defense, the Utes turned things around and dominated the last 20 minutes, running away with an 81-37 victory.
Looking confused offensively, Utah lacked a floor general in the first half and turnovers were flying all over the place. In the first 20 minutes of the season, Utah turned the ball over 13 times against an under-talented Northwest Nazarene team. The surprising part it that the turnovers were not coming by way of newcomers who were uncomfortable under the lights in their first true experience in front of the Huntsman Center crowd. Lorenzo Bonam committed six turnovers in the first half. He looked completely out of sync as if his head was not in the game. Lazy passes, landing in poor position from his decisions with the ball in his hands, and just some miss placed passes. Bonam finished the game with team high, seven turnovers.
Two more turnovers came from the star of the team, Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma has always had a difficult time handling the ball on the move, he has been prone to carrying the ball or taking an extra step before he becomes fully committed to the move he is going to make, and that is how he turned the ball over to begin the game.
Utah was able to clean things up and limited their second half turnovers to six. The nineteen turnovers is not what the Utes had hoped for in their first outing, but they can be proud of their defense off of those turnovers. Utah only allowed eight points to be scored from their 19 turnovers.
Utah had two stretches in the first half of over five minutes where they did not score a single field goal. Yes, the eight turnovers over those two stretches greatly impacted the scoring droughts. However, the poor shot selection from the Utes only added to their difficulty on offense. Utah was a much more talented, athletic and smarter team than the Crusaders, but too often they settled for the quick, easy-to-get shot instead of staying within the offense, making an extra pass and attacking the rim. Utah did begin the game by hitting their first two shots, three point attempts from Bonam and Parker Van Dyke. After that, however, they fell in love with the three point shot and threw away the opportunity to get easy points in the paint. Twelve of the first 24 shots by Utah were from beyond the arc, but unlike their first two shots, the Utes missed on 10 straight three point attempts.
Utah was only leading 20-15, with 3:56 left in the half, then Devon Daniels and Jojo Zamora combined on back to back layups which opened things up for Utah. Kuzma followed quickly, scoring twice at the rim with Rawson quickly chipping in with a three pointer and Utah never looked back. Once Utah broke down the defense with penetration they closed the half on a 16-5 run, opening a 36-20 halftime lead.
Winning with Defense and Rebounding
As Utah began to figure things out offensively, they began to communicate better on defense and shut down the Crusaders. In the second half the Utes held Northwest Nazarene to a meager 4-34 shooting, 11.8% from the field. With 88% of all shots bouncing off the rim it became a game of securing the rebounds. Utah did just that. Utah won the rebound contest 61-37. Kuzma and Jayce Johnson lead the Utes by grabbing 19 and 14 rebounds respectively.
Kuzma Leads the Way
From the opening minutes it became evident that Kyle Kuzma is the most important player on Utah’s team. While everyone else seemed to struggle, he found ways to be a consistent contributor. The power forward lead Utah in all three statistical categories with 23 points, 19 rebounds and four assists. What highlighted the game for Kuzma on Saturday was his ability to score in transition. Multiple times Kuzma was able to get past all the Crusaders and get a transition bucket. Whether it was from stealing a ball, streaking the sideline or grabbing a rebound and taking off, Kuzma always seemed to be the man leading the break.
In transition, Kuzma showed off a new wrinkle to his game. On two different occasions Kuzma, at full speed, planted his foot, spun in a circle, regathered his balance and went up for a bucket. His body control and coordination was on full display.
Rawson Provides a Bright Spot
Tyler Rawson was the first of all the new faces to stand out as a play maker for this team. Rawson had the most efficient offensive night of the team. The junior college transfer scored 13 points on 4-5 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and had one assist. He showed the ability to step out and hit a three as well as make a post-up hook shot from the baseline. There were off the ball things that stood out in Rawson’s performance. First, his two blocked shots that came from him reading another guy’s assignment and rolling over on help side defense. The other was on one of Kuzma’s highlight transition dunks. Rawson was establishing himself down low in the paint for an easy passing option, once he knew Kuzma was going to the rim, he turned and sealed off his man, allowing Kuzma an easy lane to the hoop. The way he moves without the ball in his hands will allow him to be a very important part of this Utah team.
The Utes will continue their early season development by welcoming the Concordia Cavaliers to the Huntsman Center on Tuesday, November 15th. The game will tipoff at 6:00 PM MT and can be seen on the Pac12 Network.