For the first time in Utah’s non-conference schedule, the Runnin’ Utes left the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center to face their biggest test of the early season, taking on the 13th ranked Xavier Musketeers. Behind Utah’s inability to shoot the ball from behind the arc and rebound the ball, the Utes dug themselves into a fifteen point hole midway through the first half. Despite a tremendous performance from true freshman, Devon Daniels, Utah would never be able to dig themselves out and would eventually fall short 77-69.
Despite the step backwards in their record, the Utes took some important steps forward in the confidence of their young players and there ability to play against better competition.
In Need of a Shooter
With Utah’s struggles shooting the ball on the season, the Musketeers elected to take away the driving lanes and dare the Utes to shoot from the outside. Like any young team would do, Utah gladly attempted the open looks from the perimeter. Seven of Utah’s first 11 shots of the game were attempted from three point range, very similar to a lot of games from last year. However, lacking the shooters from last year’s team, Utah only made two of those first seven attempts. As a matter of fact Utah only would continue to miss its next four deep balls as well, finishing the half with an abysmal 2-11 performance.
Towards the later end of the half, the perimeter players finally found success aggressively taking the ball to the rim and forgetting the three point shot. Jojo Zamora and Lorenzo Bonam started things off forcing their way to the basket for two buckets a piece. Then Daniels followed their lead and finished the half with three straight hoops at the rim, including an old fashion three point play.
Although they only pulled within 11 points by halftime, Utah had finally gained some momentum and offensive identity. The three perimeter players ended up with 24 of Utah’s 29 first half points.
Battle of the Boards
With Utah missing so many three point shots, there were a bunch of long rebounds to be had. Unfortunately the Musketeers were the ones who put more effort into chasing those balls down. Xavier coach, Chris Mack, stressed rebounding to his team prior to the game due to Utah being the nation’s best rebounding team. The message was well received and the Utes were destroyed on the glass in the first half. Xavier won the battle 19-12, but the edge came with the Musketeer’s eight offensive rebounds, which led to 14 second chance points. Utah had an extremely difficult time boxing out from the zone that they were playing the majority of the minutes. Rashid Gaston grabbed 10 first half rebounds, taking advantage of Utah’s shortcomings.
Righting the Wrongs
Just as one would expect Utah to completely abandon the three point shot, Daniels, Kyle Kuzma and Zamora would hit three straight attempts and pull Utah to within six, 44-38. The with the deep ball falling, Kuzma put up a shot fake on J.P. Macura and drove baseline for a reverse layup cutting the lead to four, capping an 11-4 run. Utah would pull to within five on a few more occasions but Xavier always had an answer to push the lead back out to double digits. Not only did Utah improve their shooting in the second half, but they also secured the boards. Utah out rebounded Xavier in the second half 17-14. Although the would lose the battle 33-28, the Utes gained some confidence in their ability to go toe to toe with another great rebounding team.
Evolution of Daniels
Over a 40 minute period in Cincinnati, freshman Devon Daniels put on a performance that showed he has the ability to be the best player on this Utah team. Utah struggled in the first half without having a player on offense who was willing to put things on his shoulders and force Xavier to be uncomfortable defending the ball.
That void was filled by Daniels who repeatedly broke down the Musketeer defense by taking the ball straight down the heart of the defense, getting to the rim. On the night Daniels finished with a team high of 19 points on 8-11 shooting. Daniels showed no hesitation or discomfort at being the player tasked with being the aggressor time and again, actually he rather flourished the more it became apparent that his teammates embraced his resolve.
Being a freshman, Daniels still got himself into bad situations by dribbling to deep into the defense, causing three turnovers. But as he corrects some tendencies he can be a great force for this team.
A More Composed Johnson
Freshman Jayce Johnson, who has looked rushed and lost on multiple occasions this season, showed much improvement against Xavier. Although he still suffered from his tendency to commit the unnecessary fouls, Johnson looked to be a much more comfortable player out on the court. The center did a good job of getting into good position on the court by either flashing to the weak spots of the defense or pinning his man on his back hip and making himself a big target. Once he got the ball on the paint, Johnson made quick, fluid moves to the basket. There were no hesitation or deliberate delay in his post moves, he understood what the defense allowed him and he attacked. Johnson made all three of his field goal attempts, two of which he was fouled on his way to the hoop, but unable to make his free throws. Going forward Utah will depend on some depth in the front court and it appears that Johnson is making progress on providing that extra, reliable body inside the paint.
After growing from this experience on the road, Utah will return to Salt Lake and have seven days off, hoping to prepare the team for the additions of Sedrick Barefield and David Collette. Both could be ready to join the team on the court Saturday December 17th as Utah welcomes Prairie View to the Huntsman Center. The game will once again be an opportunity for Utah to find chemistry and help each player understand their role on the team, as well as to help the coaches establish a true rotation for conference play. The game will begin at 4 PM MT and can be seen on the Pac-12 Networks.