Can red-hot Runnin’ Utes keep their momentum going Thursday against Jacksonville State?
Utah is winning with defense and the standout play of point guard Rollie Worster, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week
Before they take final exams next week, the red-hot Runnin’ Utes face an interesting test this week as they return to nonconference play after starting the Pac-12 season last week with big wins over No. 4 Arizona at the Huntsman Center and improved Washington State on the road.
“We will see where we are at mentally, and physically and emotionally, coming off that (big week). I am excited to see how we respond and where we are at. I think we are going to learn a lot about us.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
Utah (7-2) hosts Jacksonville State (4-4) at 8 p.m. MST Thursday in the first-ever meeting between the Utes and the Gamecocks of the ASUN conference. The game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.
“We will see where we are at mentally, and physically and emotionally, coming off that (big week),” coach Craig Smith said Tuesday. “I am excited to see how we respond and where we are at. I think we are going to learn a lot about us.”
Can the Utes, who are receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll and have a NET ranking of 29 (it was 19 in the initial release) continue their somewhat surprising start and handle their newfound prosperity in a positive way? Jacksonville State has won two straight, and could present some problems if it can continue to make 3-pointers at an 11-per-game rate.
“These guys are good, and they have the size and obviously the skill,” Smith said. “When you have a team that is averaging almost 11 3s a game and scoring 74 points, that is a good chunk of their offense.”
Are the good times rolling again back on the Hill?
This is the first time Utah has received AP votes since the second week of the 2019-20 season, and they find themselves atop the Pac-12 standings after being picked to finish 10th in the league. They are off to a 2-0 start in league play for the first time since 2017-18.
What’s more, point guard Rollie Worster is the Pac-12 Player of the Week after averaging 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.5 steals in the wins over Arizona and Wazzu. Worster almost had a triple-double against the Wildcats, who rebounded from the upset loss to Utah with an 81-68 rout of California.
“For (Worster) to be recognized as the Pac-12 Player of the Week (is great). It is funny, awards come when your teams do well, right? I mean, it is not an accident that way,” Smith said. “For us to go 2-0 last week, for him to be honored that way, is a great compliment. But I think it speaks volumes (about) our team. He just keeps showing up every day ready to go, ready to work, ready to compete. And the results speak for themselves.”
After matching his career-high of 19 points against WSU, Worster becomes the first Ute men’s basketball player to receive player-of-the-week honors since Feb. 1, 2021.
While Worster was honored for his offensive numbers, his defense has also been outstanding, Smith said. Actually, all the Utes are playing well on defense, which has become the team’s calling card in Smith’s second year. Arizona and Washington State combined to go just 8 of 58 (13.7%) from 3-point range against Utah.
Through Monday, the Utes were second in the nation in defensive field goal percentage (33.7%) and third in 3-point field goal percentage defense (22.5%). They are 19th in scoring defense, giving up only 58.7 points per game.
Smith said the Utes will need to continue to be “on point” defensively against JSU because the Gamecocks “have a Pac-12-looking front court with their size and their bulk and their strength that way.”
Center Branden Carlson is No. 14 in the country in blocked shots (21), while freshman Keba Keita has been an outstanding addition to Utah’s defensive rebounding efforts, as well as its presence at the rim.
“Well, Keba is going to be a factor. No question about that, and you have seen it,” Smith said. “He has made an impact every game since (Georgia Tech). And so he is a force in there. You feel him. He impacts the game in a lot of different ways. He was huge for us. Our last four or five games, he’s been big for us.”
After Thursday’s game, the Utes get the weekend off before hosting UTSA on Tuesday at the Huntsman Center. Their next road game is Dec. 17 at BYU (4 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
Utes on the air
Jacksonville State (4-4)
at Utah (7-2)
Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KALL 700 AM