Dick Harmon: BYU, Utah have big opportunities to shine this week

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 4:58 p.m. MST

Utah Utes guard Delon Wright (55) works the screen of Utah Utes center Dallin Bachynski (31) during a game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Thursday, February 6, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

Call it opportunity week for the Utes and Cougars.

In a down-the-stretch home setup, both Utah and BYU will host their respective league leaders when Arizona and Gonzaga come to the state.

These are big opportunities for both schools, who’ve proved they can play pretty tough at home.

On paper, the Utes definitely have the bigger chore. Despite losing to Arizona State last Friday in the closing seconds and dropping from No. 2 to No. 4 in the AP poll, the Wildcats are considered a No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time in March.

The up-and-down Cougars, fresh off a win at St. Mary’s, host a Gonzaga team that returned to the AP top 25 this week after a monthlong absence. The 'Zags are ranked 25th.

Home-court advantage in basketball is generally considered to be worth four points, but elevation, pace of play and crowd support can increase home superiority. I can see Utah and BYU using those factors to their advantage — just like Wyoming did in giving San Diego State its first loss of the year last week.

Arizona is 2-2 in its last four; Gonzaga has lost only twice in its last 11 games — at Portland on Jan. 9 and at No. 22 Memphis on Feb. 8.

The Utes are 17-8 overall and 16-1 at home — with a custom-made home schedule. Those wins include five league victories and a lopsided whipping of BYU. The Pac-12 home wins came over Oregon State, USC, No. 23 UCLA, Washington and Washington State.

The Cougars are 18-10 overall and 12-1 at home — the only loss being a 90-88 defeat to No. 17 Iowa State back on Nov. 20. BYU has since won nine straight in the Marriott Center, where they generally are better at the free-throw line.

The Utes are a hot team, one that's improving and maturing. The big challenge for Utah this year has been finishing off hard-fought games. They've struggled to make those crucial crunch-time plays that make the difference. ASU, by the way, did just that last Friday in that upset of Arizona.

The Cougars have struggled to defend, make stops or hit free throws. BYU rides the back of junior Tyler Haws and struggles when its big men sit on the bench in foul trouble. The Cougars' win over the Gaels Saturday definitely brought needed confidence to a team that’s been tripped up by some of the WCC’s lesser threats.

The Ute offense ranks No. 3 in the Pac-12 with a 78.7 points per game average. Arizona averages 73.1, 10th in the league. Arizona and Utah rank first and second in league defense and scoring margin. The Utes — no matter the opponent — are a better free-throw shooting team than Arizona (.746 to .647) and that could prove to be important. Utah leads the league in field goal shooting percentage at .499; Arizona is fifth.

In Pac-12 games only, Utah’s strengths hold up, ranking No. 2 right behind Arizona in scoring defense, No. 2 in free-throw shooting and No. 3 in field goal percentage. On its home court, Utah’s strength might be defense, led by the league’s top steal artist — Delon Wright.

In Gonzaga, the Cougars face an experienced, talented inside-out team. As BYU coach Dave Rose has discovered, the WCC may not have the athleticism of other leagues, but it does have shooters, and when his guys let them get set, they’ve killed BYU.

BYU’s best chances to beat Gonzaga in the Marriott Center lie with its offense. When the Cougars are rolling with Haws, Kyle Collinsworth and Matt Carlino, they can be impressive.

BYU ranks first in the WCC — ahead of Gonzaga — in scoring offense (85.5 to 78.4 points per game). But the Zags are simply far more efficient, especially from beyond the arc, where they lead the league at 40 percent. The Cougars are No. 8 at shooting 3s at 36 percent, but they do lead the conference in assists per game. The other Cougar strength is rebounding, where BYU leads the league on both ends of the court.

While Utah’s strength against Arizona might be the physicality of its defense, that is exactly what BYU needs to display more of in this second meeting with Gonzaga — especially beyond the arc, where this game will be won or lost.

So, is this doable, knocking off a pair of league leaders?

In a word, yes.

Anything is possible.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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