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Can the Runnin’ Utes validate an inspiring upset of No. 4 Arizona with a road win at Wazzu?

Previously undefeated Arizona didn’t handle its first true road test of the season well on Thursday. Can Utah?

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Arizona Wildcats guard Cedric Henderson Jr. (45) shoots against Utah Utes forward Ben Carlson (1) during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

These are halcyon days for the University of Utah’s athletics department after the football team earned back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl on Friday night with a victory over USC in the Pac-12 football championship game.

For the first time in a long time, the men’s basketball team is right in the middle of it, too, after the Runnin’ Utes stunned No. 4-ranked Arizona 81-66 Thursday night at the Huntsman Center. And don’t forget that the Utah women’s basketball team is undefeated (7-0) and ranked No. 16 nationally.

“This (win over Arizona) is a big-time emotional win, but we got a super quick turnaround for Washington State for a 1 p.m. (local time) game. So it is going to be really interesting.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

But the next task might be even more difficult for coach Craig Smith’s much-improved men’s team. The Utes (1-0, 6-2) will play their first true road game of the young season on Sunday when they travel to Pullman, Washington, to take on Washington State at Beasley Coliseum.

Tipoff is at 2 p.m. MST, and the game will be televised by ESPNU.

“This (win over Arizona) is a big-time emotional win, but we got a super quick turnaround for Washington State for a 1 p.m. (local time) game,” Smith said. “So it is going to be really interesting.”

College basketball provides perhaps the biggest home-court advantage in all of sports, as was evidenced again Thursday when an Arizona team coming off a championship in the Maui Classic did not handle its first true road game of the season well at all.

Now it is Utah’s turn. The Utes went 1-1 away from the Huntsman Center in November, defeating Georgia Tech and losing to Mississippi State on a neutral floor in Fort Myers, Florida.

True road games in college basketball are a different animal, although not much of a crowd is expected Sunday at Beasley. An announced crowd of 3,275 watched the Cougars rout Detroit Mercy 96-54 on Nov. 25, and only 2,443 saw WSU down Texas State 83-61 in Wazzu’s home opener on Nov. 7.

Wazzu swept the Utes last year, winning 77-61 in Salt Lake City and 71-54 in Pullman. The Cougars (0-1, 3-3) lost 74-60 at Oregon on Thursday while the Utes were surprising the previously undefeated Wildcats.

“Going up to Pullman for my first time last year, besides the temperature being really cold in that arena (I remember) it was a tough place to play, man,” Smith said. “They are physical and rugged and they just grind you out.”

Washington State is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, while Utah prides itself on its half-court defense. Something has gotta give on the Palouse.

The Cougars are shooting 42.1% from deep, and have four players averaging in double figures, led by TJ Bamba (15.7 ppg) and Jabe Mullins (14.2), who is shooting 56.7% from 3-point range.

Utah is No. 2 in field goal percentage defense, as opponents are shooting just 33.9% from the field against the Utes. Utah is fifth nationally in 3-point percentage defense (24%).

That defense was the difference in the Utes’ historic win over Arizona, which shot just 14.3% (4 of 28) from beyond the arc and 35.2% (25 of 71) from the floor.

“Had a pretty pointed film session on Tuesday, and our guys answered the bell,” Smith said after the win over Arizona. “Probably our two best practices of the year the last two days. That is, generally speaking, a good sign.”

Smith is fond of saying that “defense travels,” so it will be interesting to see if it makes its way to Pullman, where Washington State is 2-0 this season. If nothing else, the Cougars won’t be caught by surprise after the Utes sent a message to the Pac-12 with the win over the preseason Pac-12 favorites and defending conference champions.

“I think it says that we can play with anybody. What does that mean? I don’t know,” Smith said after the Utes snapped a seven-game losing streak against teams in The Associated Press Top 25. 

“How does that quote go? ‘For every 100 men that can handle failure, only one can handle success.’ I have always believed in that. Basketball is a humbling game. Athletics and life is very humbling. And so you can’t be a team that is like way up here, and then way down here, and so on. … And that is the challenge.”

After Sunday’s game, the Utes will return to their nonconference schedule and host Jacksonville State (Dec. 8) and UTSA (Dec. 13) at the Huntsman Center before the Dec. 17 showdown in Provo against BYU.

Utes on the air

Utah (1-0, 6-2) at Washington State (0-1, 3-3)

Sunday, 2 p.m. MST

Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Washington


Radio: KALL 700 AM