SALT LAKE CITY — It's a big week this week for Utah men's basketball. After a pair of tough losses in Arizona a week ago, the Utes welcome the Southern California schools to the Wasatch Front.
I've said all season that this would be an improved basketball team and through 14 games that has been the case. I've also maintained that Larry Krystkowiak's team wouldn't suffer the same type of beat downs this year that they did a year ago. My reasoning is simple: their talent level and effort on the defensive end don't lend themselves to those sorts of results.
If you can play in front of 15,000 against the No. 3 team in the country — on the road — and have the game be in question until the last play of the game, then I like the chances of being "in" every game this season.
That brings us to this week against UCLA and USC. The Utes have played their share of tight games this season against quality opponents: BYU, Arizona State and Arizona, only to come up short late.
All three of those games were on the road. This week they get the Bruins and Trojans at the Huntsman Center. It's time for the Utes to plant a flag in the ground and get a conference win. Krystkowiak is not a fan of "moral victories" and though his team played well last week in Arizona, they still lost. He believes it's time they win a conference game, and so do I.
Both games this week at home are winnable, but the game Thursday night certainly presents more than a few challenges. Ben Howland's Bruins are 12-3 and 2-0 in Pac-12 play. After struggling in November and early December, they've ripped off seven straight wins and the mix of young and veteran talent is beginning to mesh.
The Bruins are a mix of three wildly talented freshmen in Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and three veteran upperclassmen in Travis and David Wear and Larry Drew II. They will be as talented and athletic as any team that Utah faces this season.
UCLA is best in transition but have played better recently in the half court. And while they don't defend quite as well as some Howland teams in the past, they are improving.
For the Utes to spring the upset Thursday night, they'll need to continue to play the type of defense they've played all season, but will also have to begin making those easy shots around the basket that have eluded them in key moments this season.
Utah will also need more consistent play on the offensive end out of their guard line. Both Glen Dean and Jarred DuBois have been nice additions to this season's squad, but both have been inconsistent of late. Aaron Dotson has now been back for more than a month, and Utah would benefit greatly from Dotson's potential on both ends.
This will be the first time the Bruins have faced the Utes in Salt Lake City since December 1928. Here's hoping the Utes make the first matchup against UCLA on campus in 84 years a memorable one. If they do, it will signal another significant milestone in the turnaround of Utah basketball.
Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.
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