Analysis: Utah’s early exit in Pac-12 tournament not a surprise to those paying attention
Wednesday’s 73-62 loss to Stanford was Utes’ sixth-straight setback, and exposed a team that could never get it together offensively
LAS VEGAS — The University of Utah’s men’s basketball season almost certainly came to an end Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena — barring a miracle invitation to play in the NIT — but in reality the Utes’ season hit the wall about a month ago.
The 73-62 loss to much-improved Stanford in a Pac-12 tournament first-round game was just the latest blow to a team that limped to the finish line, hampered by too many injuries, too few offensive weapons and a general lack of confidence when the schedule turned ultra-difficult.
“Yeah, they just got to all the 50-50 balls. Like the past few games, we let them get going early, and then from that we were just playing catchup the whole rest of the night.” — Marco Anthony.
“It was a tough night for us,” concluded coach Craig Smith.
And a tough ending to a Pac-12 season that started with so much promise, including an upset of then-No. 4 Arizona. But the Utes (17-15) are a far cry from that squad, even if they were finally at full strength after injuries slowed their starting backcourt the last five weeks.
As 1.5-point favorites, the Utes led for only 43 seconds early in the contest, fell behind by seven at halftime and never really threatened in the second half in falling in a first-round game for the second-straight year.
“Yeah, they just got to all the 50-50 balls,” said Utah fifth-year Marco Anthony, who quite likely played his final game as a Ute. “Like the past few games, we let them get going early, and then from that we were just playing catchup the whole rest of the night.”
Utah, which has lost six straight games, will accept an NIT bid if one comes Sunday, Smith said Monday and again after Wednesday’s early ouster, but prospects of that invitation grew dimmer in the bright lights of Las Vegas.
“It is a little bit of a perfect storm here with some of our injuries late in the season, and the toughest part of our schedule, and it all came together here and I feel bad for our players,” Smith said. “We will see what happens here in the next three or four days (with the NIT). But I love coaching this group.”
Before the matchup, it was a case of two teams heading in the opposite direction, and nothing the Utes did could reverse that course in front of a meager crowd at T-Mobile. Stanford (14-18) will meet No. 2 seed Arizona (25-6) at 7 p.m. MST Thursday in a quarterfinal game.
Utah, meanwhile, has a lot to be proud of for winning six more league games this year than last, but the ending was the same.
“Congrats to Stanford. I thought they played outstanding. They were playing great basketball coming in,” Smith said. “I think they started 0-6 on league. They look dramatically different. They are a talented group. There is a reason they were picked preseason fifth in the Pac-12.”
All-Pac-12 performer Branden Carlson lived up to that billing with 27 points on 9 of 15 shooting for the Utes, but didn’t get much help. Gabe Madsen added 13 points but was just 4 of 13 from the field in his second game back from a high ankle sprain that made him miss every game in February.
“We were really struggling to find that third scorer, struggling to find another guy to get some easy baskets,” Smith said.
Four Cardinal players reached double figures, led by Brandon Angel with 16 points. Harrison Ingram added 15.
The Utes got zero points from two starters — Ben Carlson and Rollie Worster — and were outscored 38-24 in the paint. Nothing seemed to work offensively for the Utes, aside from Carlson’s stellar play, which became a theme of the late season.
“I am not going to talk down on anybody. Some days shots fall and some days they don’t. That’s just basketball,” said Madsen, who kept the Utes in it early with some timely 3-pointers. “Today was one of those days for some people, myself included. I feel like I didn’t shoot that well. I had a couple go in early, but that’s it.”
The Utes would love to have the first eight minutes back. They fell behind 20-9 before Madsen picked them up with a couple quick baskets. They cut the double-digit Stanford lead to two on another Madsen 3-pointer with about seven minutes left in the half, then went the next four minutes without a field goal to fall back again.
The Cardinal led 34-27 at the break.
In the second half, that defense Utah has relied on all season, but faltered late as the losses and injuries piled up, couldn’t pull it out. Stanford has been the best 3-point shooting teams in the country since Feb. 1, Smith said, but was just 5 of 16 Wednesday.
Instead, the Cardinal went inside, beat the Utes time and again on drives to the hoop, and committed just four turnovers.
“Defensively, we were elite. Elite, until about the last six games or so. And then we took a hit,” Smith said. “We always hung our hat on that. That has always been a consistent thing for this team. So we have been able to withstand some of the unevenness of our offense at times.”
But not on this night.
“I mean, losing a couple games in a row, it kind of gets to you,” Carlson said, acknowledging that the injuries took their toll. “We just needed to make a couple different plays, make better decisions, and it changes the whole outcome of those games and the momentum coming into this week.”
The Utes are now 1-7 in Pac-12 tourney games at T-Mobile Arena, and 7-12 in the tournament overall.
So now the attention shifts squarely to Carlson, who was 9 of 15 from the field and also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Asked whether the late-season slide and Wednesday’s disappointing loss will “weigh on his mind” the next few months as he decides whether to return or head off to the professional ranks, he shook his head.
“Yeah, I don’t think it really affects my decision either way,” he said. “Whatever I decide is going to be what is just best for me in the end.”