SALT LAKE CITY – All of a sudden, thanks to a pair of road victories on the Bay Area road trip, the Utah basketball team finds itself near the top of the Pac-12 standings, in a tie for second place.
The Utes improved to 5-2 over the weekend with a decisive 82-64 win over Cal, following a four-point victory at Stanford. That puts them in a tie with USC, a couple of games behind Washington, which has yet to lose in seven league games.
Utah’s high standing nearing the midpoint of the league schedule might be a surprise to many, and coach Larry Krystkowiak is trying to not get overly excited about his team’s standing after a so-so start when his Utes played .500 ball for most of two months.
“Certainly it’s far better than other scenarios,” he said. “In three out of four road games we’ve stayed connected and done enough to get wins, and even the Arizona game (a one-point loss) wasn’t bad.”
Throughout much of the season, the Utes have been inconsistent with uneven performances on offense and defense, but both sides of the ball were more consistent in the two road wins.
“We did a good job defensively in the second half, holding them to 22 points,” said Krystkowiak after the Cal game. “In the second half we were really dialed in defensively.”
The Utes also had a couple of good shooting games, going 47.2 percent from the field overall and 64.3 percent from 3-point range against Stanford and 55.9 and 41.9 percent, respectively, against Cal. Sedrick Barefield, who averaged 19.5 ppg on the road swing, was 9 for 17 from long range on the trip, while Both Gach went 4 for 7 and Parker Van Dyke 4 for 8.
Now the Utes will try to keep their winning ways going this week with home games against Oregon Thursday night and Oregon State Saturday afternoon.
“There’s nothing magical about home,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got to keep grinding with this group. We’ve got to get our home court going with two of the better teams, Oregon and Oregon State, coming up here.”
The Ducks (11-8, 2-4) were favored to win the league this year, but were hurt by the injury to their best player, 7-foot-3 freshman Bol Bol, who was averaging 21 points and 9.6 rebounds when he went down with a foot injury last month. Bol is expected to be a top-10 draft pick this year and announced earlier this month that his career at Oregon is over.
Oregon State (12-7, 4-3) started off league play with a road win at Oregon but has lost three of its last four, including a 10-point home loss to Washington Saturday.
Despite the two road wins and a four-game winning streak, Krystkowiak still has some concerns about his team.
One problem for the Utes has been a lack of production by inside players. In Saturday’s game, starting center Jayce Johnson scored eight points and backup Novak Topalovic scored just two points. Against Stanford, the two combined for 11 points.51 comments on this story
“There’s no question we need a post presence,” Krystkowiak said. “I thought Jayce had a decent go at it and Novi had a nice jump hook . . . we’re figuring out how to get those guys some looks. For us to be where we want to be, we have to get more of a balance for sure and make teams pay inside, and we’ll continue to work on that in practice this week.”
Another concern is free-throw shooting. After making 11 of 16 against Stanford, the Utes made just 3 of 9 at Cal, leaving them at 56 percent (14 of 25) for the trip.
“Free throws were atrocious,” Krystkowiak said. “We didn’t shoot the free throws well the whole trip. Those are points you’re leaving on the board. We have to get dialed in.”