By: Porter Larsen
With the regular season winding down and tournament hopes on the line, the Runnin’ Utes Thursday night showdown with UCLA becomes one of utmost importance.
In 2017, the two squads were highlighted by two guys now making a name for themselves under the bright lights in Los Angeles. In 2018, however, the teams are adjusting to playing without their Hollywood stars in the lineup.
The Utes have won their last four games heading into this weeks homestand, but they aren’t the only ones riding a hot streak. The Bruins have won six of their last seven games, including defeats of No. 13 Arizona, USC, and Oregon, and now sit at second in the Pac-12 Conference – tied with USC (10-5) and just one game in front of Utah 9-6).
Pitting the Pac-12’s top defense in Utah against the conferences’ most prolific offense in UCLA, the U’s annual ‘Red Out’ night looks to be must-see-basketball. Here’s what the fans in crimson can expect from the visiting Bruins.
UCLA is led by junior point guard Aaron Holiday, who has had a breakout season after taking a backseat role to Lonzo Ball in 2017. Holiday is the younger brother of Jrue (New Orleans Pelicans) and Justin (Chicago Bulls) and, much like his brothers, stuffs the stat sheet on a nightly basis. He leads the Bruins in scoring (19.4 ppg), assists (5.7 apg), steals (1.3spg), minutes (37 mpg), and most advanced statistics. This makes up for an intriguing matchup with Utes senior point guard Justin Bibbins, who posts similar numbers for the Utes.
Holiday, while shouldering a lot of the load for UCLA, is by no means alone in the backcourt.
Five-star recruit Jaylen Hands sees quality playing time offers double-digit scoring, 10.7 ppg, and reliable support for Holiday at the point guard position. Both Holiday and Hands possess NBA potential, ensuring consistent play at the position. Also bolstering their backcourt is Prince Ali, a versatile combo guard with a dangerous outside jumper.
The Bruins certainly don’t lack length or athleticism, with what seems like an endless supply of long, versatile wings that can do all the little things. They defend, run the floor well, and knock down open shots. A combination that has helped the Bruins inch closer and closer to cracking back into the national rankings.
6-foot-8 freshman, Kris Wilkes averages nearly 14 points-per-game while pulling down 5 rebounds – both good enough for second on the team.
One thing these guys all have in common; they can shoot the rock. UCLA has eight players that shoot 33 percent or better from distance and can have five of them on the floor at any given time. In fact, even their big fella Thomas Welsh can step outside making it no coincidence that they lead the Pac-12 in 3FG% at .393.
Welsh, a 7-foot senior, scores 13 pointer per-game while leading the conference in rebounding. Reeling in almost 11 rebounds per-outing, Welsh joins Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton as the only Pac-12 players averaging in double-digits on the boards.
UCLA goes aobut seven players deep on the depth chart and doesn’t have much fall off when the starters sit. Their shooting, size, length, and athleticism pose serious threats to the Runnin’ Utes. Looking to avoid a season-sweep and after an embarrassing loss in L.A. earlier this season, Utah has more than enough motivation to return the favor in front of a raucous crowd Thursday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center – where the Utes are 10-2 on the season.
Tipoff is set for 7 PM on ESPN and pre-game coverage on ESPN700 begins at 6.
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