We are still barely past the halfway mark of this college basketball season, but there’s a question that probably should start getting pondered a little bit: Is Utah a Final Four contender?
The Runnin’ Utes have been a great story. From 6-25 three years ago, to just missing the NCAA Tournament last year, to the top 10 this year, Larry Krystkowiak has had tremendous success. (He’s a former Montana coach: that’s what former Montana coaches do.) More than just a great story, though, Utah of late is looking like not just a real national contender, but even a bully.
The Utes (14-2 overall) notably snapped Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak. They’ve won at BYU, nearly won at Kansas and handled UNLV in the non-conference season. In the Pac-12, though, Utah has taken it to another level. The Utes are 4-0 in league play now after a 76-59 win at Arizona State last night. Utah has outscored four Pac-12 opponents by an average of 24.5 points per game. UCLA (71-39 losers) and Colorado (74-49) both left Salt Lake City with tails between the legs. It’s a team that is not just winning, it’s blowing out quality teams.
Statistically, Utah has it all. The Utes shoot it, limit the other team’s shooting, can stroke the three, drive, play through the inside, pound opponents on the glass, and make more free throws than their opponents attempt. The team has size, athleticism, length and depth.
Before we go too far, though, we must remember one thing: Utah still has played just five road games this year. A 3-2 record in those games is good, but it’s still not enough of a sample to know how this team can do in such situations on a consistent basis. Remember: stressful situations can have an effect on teams’ confidence, to a point where some teams never quite recover. Look no further than teams like Minnesota and California this year, both of who looked really good in November and December but now have hit rough patches that have proven tough to dig out of.
Utah is a very deserving top 10 team right now, but one just hopes the Utes aren’t peaking too soon. On the subject of the road games test, though, we aren’t going to have to wait long to find out more, with a top 10 showdown with Arizona on Saturday. If Utah’s recent play is any indication, the game could not only be one of the best of the regular season, but a possible preview of more in the postseason.
- Kyle Collinsworth did it again with his fourth triple-double of the season (17 Points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in BYU‘s 93-80 win at Pacific. Collinsworth tied the NCAA record for most triple-doubles in a season, a record he now shares with some lofty company: Michael Anderson of Drexel (1985-86), UC Santa Barbara’s Brian Shaw (1987-88), California’s Jason Kidd (1993-94) and Stephane Lasme of Massachusetts(2006-07).
- Memphis picked up its best win of the season, defeating Cincinnati 63-50. The Tigers forced 20 turnovers and Austin Nichols just continues to produce: 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks here.
- Wisconsin got Frank Kaminsky back, and what a difference. Kaminsky scored 22 and the Badgers handled Nebraska 70-55. Bronson Koenig was more than just solid in his first game in place of Traevon Jackson, too, with 11 points.
- Arizona took care of Colorado 68-54 despite Askia Booker scoring 55.6% of his team’s points-30 points for the Buffaloes.
- Gonzaga held off Pepperdine 78-76, despite shooting a terrible 14 of 33 from the free throw line. The Bulldogs got caught in L.A. traffic and arrived 25 minutes before the game, big credit to Waves’ coach Marty Wilson for delaying the start of the game 33 minutes for the Zags. And what a terrific atmosphere and a terrific game in Malibu at the Firestone Fieldhouse, outstanding.
- Florida hammered Auburn 75-55. Hold off on the “Florida’s back” storylines for a while yet (it’s only been three straight wins) but the Gators looked good in this one in almost every area.
- Murray State has now won 12 in a row, and watching the Racers against Belmont, for those who insist on using the “eye test,” this should be a team that passes it. Cameron Payne scored 23 points to lead six-SIX-players in double figures in Murray’s 92-77 win over Belmont. The Racers shot 55.9%, including 11 of 24 from three-point range, and also slammed the Bruins on the boards 41-24.
- Old Dominion moved to 14-2 with a 63-53 win over Rice. Aaron Bacote scored 25 points.
- George Washington needed two overtimes but finally disposed of Richmond 73-70. Kevin Larsen was held scoreless in the Colonials’ last game, a disappointing loss at La Salle, but the big man responded tonight, tying a career high with 22 points and adding 11 rebounds.
- Quietly, St. Mary’s continues to take care of business in the WCC. The Gaels are now 14-3 overall and 6-0 in the league after a 70-58 win over San Diego. Up next? BYU at home, Gonzaga on the road. We should know a lot about SMC by the end of next Thursday.
- Washington State and Oregon played a wild one, with the Cougars grabbing a 108-99 overtime win. This is not slow-down, dull-as-a-gray-football-uniform Wazzu; the Cougars under Ernie Kent like to go, and so do the Ducks. Terrific game with 23 ties and 18 lead changes, and good to see Washington State respectable again.
- Washington got back on track with a badly needed 56-43 win over Oregon State. The Beavers shot an ugly 31.9% in a game best known for the matchup of Shawn Kemp, Jr. (UW) and Gary Payton, Jr. (OSU). Bad news for Oregon State: forward Victor Robbins has been suspended 10 games for violating athletic department policy, as reported by The Oregonian last night. Robbins has been a key player for the Beavers, averaging 10.3 points per game.
- Finally, a sad note we missed from the day before: former Seattle, USC and Mississippi State coach Bob Boyd passed away on Wednesday at the age of 84. Boyd was a Division I head coach for a total of 21 years at those three schools, including 13 years at Southern California from 1967-79, where he had the bit of bad luck of coaching across town from John Wooden for much of his career. Boyd’s best year was leading the Trojans to a 24-2 mark with only two losses to UCLA in 1970-71. He also took Seattle to the NCAA Tournament in 1964 and USC to the NCAA’s in 1979, the NIT in 1973 and the oft-forgotten Collegiate Commissioner’s Association tourneys in 1974 and 1975 (think of a 1970’s version of the CBI, but when the NCAA Tournament and NIT only took a combined 41 teams in 1974 and 48 in 1975), including a second-place finish in 1974.
Tonight’s Menu: Seven Division I games on tap. Four of them are in the Metro Atlantic, with two in the Northeast Conference and one more in the Summit League. A few words on each one…
St. Francis (N.Y.) at Robert Morris (9 p.m. EST, ESPNU) Your best national TV opportunity for the night, and not a bad one. The Terriers had won six straight until a loss to Mount St. Mary’s this past Saturday, while RMU is the only undefeated left in the NEC.
Manhattan at St. Peter’s The Jaspers’ brutal non-conference schedule is starting to pay dividends in the MAAC, where they have won three straight and are tied for third at 4-2. The Peacocks are 3-4 in league, but every time now that Rutgers beats or scares a Big Ten team, remember that this is the squad that had no trouble with the Scarlet Knights.
Iona at Niagara (7 p.m. EST, ESPNU) The Gaels and Purple Eagles also will be on TV. Iona is probably the best team playing tonight…
Western Illinois at North Dakota State …but if it’s not Iona, then it’s NDSU, tied for the top of the Summit and rebounding quite nicely from losing so many players and its coach from last year’s NCAA tourney winners.
Siena at Canisius Both sit at 3-3 in the MAAC. For one team (Canisius) that’s an accomplishment; for the other (Siena) it’s a disappointment.
Sacred Heart at St. Francis (Pa.) The Red Flash from Loretto also have beaten Rutgers this year.
Marist at Fairfield One team trying to find its way into contention in the MAAC hosts another just looking for a win. The Red Foxes have lost 11 straight, though their one win-over Fresno State-is a surprisingly good one.
Enjoy your Friday.