Even with the loss of three starters from a team that pulled off a surprising run to the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament, the Utah Utes had the appearance of a team that could make a move in the Pac-12. Forward Jordan Loveridge and guard Brandon Taylor would be sophomores, and a group of newcomers led by junior Delon Wright would raise the level of talent at Larry Krystkowiak’s disposal.
After picking up their first true road victory of conference play on Thursday night, beating USC 79-71, the Utes are 17-7 with a 6-6 record in Pac-12 play. Given the quality of their non-conference schedule, Utah has a lot of work to do when it comes to reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. With this being the case the chances of the Utes making the Field of 68 are slim.
However, in front of the Utes are two games that could potentially change the course of their season should they find a way to win. Those games: at UCLA this weekend, and No. 2 Arizona at home next Wednesday.
Find a way to win those two, and Utah would have two much-needed quality wins on its resume. And while beating USC does little for Utah’s hopes of climbing into the NCAA tournament discussion, the fact that they were able to close out a game on the road is a step forward for a program that has struggled for much of its brief stay in the Pac-12.
Most importantly, Utah finally didn’t panic when a team made a run. Unlike Arizona, and Colorado, the Utes didn’t wilt when USC made a big push. And that’s why Utah finally can say it won a road game.
The differences against USC were three-point shooting and the way in which Utah distributed the basketball. The Utes made ten of their 19 attempts from beyond the arc, with Loveridge, Taylor and Dakarai Tucker accounting for all ten makes. And of their 24 made field goals 17 were assisted, resulting in an assist percentage (70.8%) much better than their rate for the season (58.4%).
There are areas to address however, most notably the 14 turnovers committed against USC. But Utah has a chance to turn this season into something more, a scenario few expected even after the Utes entered conference play with a gaudy 11-1 record. And even if that doesn’t result in a trip to the NCAA tournament, that’s a positive sign for Utah basketball in the future.