What. A. Weekend!
Las Vegas, Nevada has been a very emotional place for Utah sports fans lately. We’ve all felt the effects from a streak at the roulette wheel, the joy and eventual pain of an aggressive run at the buffet, or even the literal ups and downs of a roller coaster ride at New York, New York or The Stratosphere. Whatever Sin City poison you usually pick as a Utah fan, it is likely no more intense than the whacky happenings of the Las Vegas Bowl last December and the riotous Pac-12 Basketball Tournament this past weekend. We all know the story of the football game, so I won’t beat that dead horse anymore. Still, there are parallels to be drawn. We will get to those later.
For now, here’s what we learned about Utah basketball over the course of 3 nights at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Thursday, against USC Jakob Poeltl was the well-rounded force that we’ve come to expect him to be. The Trojans seemed to acknowledge early on that they didn’t have any single player that could handle the Pac-12 POY individually, so they threw double teams at him. Poeltl responded by either simply beating the double or letting the pressure focus on him before kicking out to his teammates who did their part in shooting efficiently. Ball-sharing was a highlight as well, Utah amassed 22 assists over the course of the game. Kyle Kuzma reared his head again as a reason to believe in this team as more than a one-trick-pony, and the Utes celebrated moving on to a semifinal matchup against the Cal Bears.
Friday, the Utes played the late game. The REALLY late game after Arizona and Oregon went into OT. Against Cal, the Utes found a tough test, as was expected. Cal’s twin 7-footers did their best to slow Poeltl, but it was not nearly good enough, as the Austrian simply destroyed their man-up approach to the tune of 29 points. A lesson in the futility of trying to match Poeltl’s potency with size alone. He will not be stopped by single, plodding defenders, no matter how physical. The OT win wouldn’t have come without some stellar play by Zo Bonham though, whose coast-to-coast buzzer beater drive is one of the more memorable moments in recent Utah basketball history. Great athlete making a great play. Another nod the Utes’ ability to get production from the supporting cast, even in crucial moments. The win showed preparedness and grit in beating another team that could easily be considered almost as hot as Utah heading into the tournament.
Saturday, we learned that Utah was still not above shooting themselves in the foot. Against a team as good as Oregon, a three minute scoring drought can put the ballgame out of reach. Double-digit turnovers will guarantee that you can’t climb back into it in the second half. At one point, the stat sheet showed more Utah turnovers than made field goals. That’s a disaster. The Ducks crashed on Poeltl, not with size, but with speed, numbers, and an anticipation that made it impossible for the inlet passes to get to him at a reasonable time. Oregon has been the better team all year, but they looked improved and fresh even after a tough road to the championship. The Utes did not. It was a stark reminder that just a few possessions of lapsed focus can snowball into a really rough night. It was a sour way to finish a sweet weekend.
This is where the football parallels come in. On one hand, Ute fans need to be happy and appreciate the progress programs are making, reaching new heights in Pac-12 play. The 10-win season for the football team, first ever tournament title game for the basketball team. Both accomplishments speak to the development of programs that faced growing pains upon joining the conference. On the other hand, the way the football season ended, and a blowout loss in the championship game at the hands of the Ducks, is testament that getting better is not the same as being the best. Fans find themselves in the confusing position of processing satisfying forward steps and the bitterness of missed opportunities at the same time. Quite an odd place to be. Rather than focusing on the losses though, I think it’s important to realize that this University is fielding teams that are already top-25 with plenty of room to grow. Imagine where both programs can be once they truly put it all together.
Ultimately, these are great days to be a Ute. Especially because basketball has another opportunity to make tournament noise, this time on an even grander scale. Drawing a #3 seed and first round matchup with Fresno State are both positives for Larry K’s team, but I am most curious to see how they respond after the Oregon loss. The postgame presser was fascinating because neither Larry nor his players bothered to conceal their disgust with their own performance. I would imagine the entire program is angry at the way they showed out in the Final. Trying to point out individual lapses or certain plays becomes a moot point in a blowout loss such as that one. Everybody needs to be better. The team that shows up in Denver will be hungrier than they might have been after celebrating a Pac-12 tournament championship. Less confident? We will have to see. But certainly eager to prove that the poor performance was an outlier. Also, let’s not ignore the fact that the Ducks are a #1 seed. The Utes are mad this March. And I think it will be a good thing.
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