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Why Colorado will challenge Utah’s perfect home record

The Buffaloes come into Salt Lake City winners in four of their past five games, with a roster full of draft-level talent

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Colorado forward Cody Williams (10) and guard KJ Simpson (2) celebrate the team’s 98-81 win over Washington.

Colorado forward Cody Williams (10) and guard KJ Simpson celebrate a win over Washington in an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Seattle. The Buffaloes will face Utah Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center.

Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press

After a two-game road trip where Utah lost games at Washington State and Washington by an average of 23.5 points, the Runnin’ Utes are back home and back in friendly confines — so far this season, Utah is 11-0 at the Huntsman Center.

Colorado, though, will try to make it an unwelcome homecoming in a Saturday afternoon matchup (3 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network).

“There’s ups in the season, there’s downs in the season. You got to be able to remain even keel and keep on fighting and I feel like our guys have done a good job with that this week.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

The Buffaloes have won four of five, with their only loss during that stretch coming on the road against similarly hot Washington State.

“I just think they’re gaining their stride. I just feel they’re playing their best basketball of the year right now, and I don’t think you can understate that,” Utah coach Craig Smith said of Colorado.

“We’re gonna have to be on point with what we’re doing and we’re really going to have to be connected on both ends of the floor. You don’t ever have to play perfect, but you’re gonna have to play with a great spirit if we’re going to find a way to win this game.”

The game against Colorado opens a critical three-game home stretch for Utah (14-7, 5-5 Pac-12) to start the second half of Pac-12 play. 

Next week, the Utes will host No. 11 Arizona and Arizona State, two teams that beat Utah in Arizona in early January.

For a Utah squad that’s struggling on the road, winning games like Saturday’s matchup are key to staying in the top half of the league standings.

The Buffaloes have several players being mentioned as NBA draft possibilities, led by Cody Williams, the 19-year-old freshman forward.

There’s also junior guard KJ Simpson, who earlier this week was named to the Wooden Award late season top 20 watch list, and senior forward Tristan da Silva.

The trio leads the Buffaloes’ scoring attack — Simpson averages 19.2 points per game, followed by da Silva (15.6) and Williams (14.7).

“Cody Williams, a true freshman, projected to be second, third, fourth, fifth pick in the NBA draft this year. And KJ Simpson, I mean, arguably could be the MVP of the league this year if he keeps playing the way he’s playing,” Smith said of Colorado’s personnel.

“And then they just have great players that surround them that are really good with role definition and understand who they are and what they are. And they have some very veteran guys that have been down this road.”

Utah is expected to be without two of its original starters for a sixth straight game — on Thursday, Smith said he would be “surprised” if center Lawson Lovering (ankle injury) was ready for Saturday’s game, while adding he doesn’t anticipate guard Rollie Worster (lower leg) “playing anytime soon.”

There is hope for Utah in that unblemished home record, though. The Utes, especially in conference play, have looked like a different team at the Huntsman Center.

In the Utes’ last game at its home arena on Jan. 21, even with Worster and Lovering out, Utah beat Oregon, who is tied for the Pac-12 lead. 

Deivon Smith, inserted into the starting lineup when Worster went out, nearly had a triple-double in the win over the Ducks and Utah had five players score in double figures.

Colorado presents its own challenges.

“Offensively they put a lot of pressure on you. They really attack the paint. They live in the paint. They make great decisions. They get fouled,” Smith said. “… They just play very, very selfless, they’re very unselfish as a team and they’re always gonna compete on the defensive end.”

With Utah’s lineup uncertainty, one young player who stepped up in last Saturday’s loss was freshman forward Jake Wahlin. He ended up playing a season-high 16 minutes and had four points, four rebounds and a blocked shot.

Wahlin could be used more going forward.

“He always comes to practice ready to go, ready to compete. I think he’s got a very high IQ for the game. There’s gonna be some growing pains there when you’re a true freshman. We had such a hard schedule early on, and obviously with the depth of our team, it was hard for him to kind of get those minutes, but he’s earned them,” Smith said.

Utes on air Colorado

Utes on the air


Utah (14-7, 5-5 Pac-12)
vs. Colorado (15-6, 6-4 Pac-12)
Saturday, 3 p.m. MST
Huntsman Center
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: 700 AM

“One thing with Jake is you always know what you’re gonna get. He’s always gonna compete hard. He’s gonna play hard. He’s gonna play the game selflessly. He’s gonna do his job to the very best of his ability.”

Utah’s coach also mentioned he’s liked the response from his team after the two lopsided losses last week.

“You get the ebbs and flow of a five-and-a-half-month, six-month season, and you go on the road in the Pac-12, it’s hard, it’s very difficult,” Smith said. “There’s ups in the season, there’s downs in the season. You got to be able to remain even keel and keep on fighting and I feel like our guys have done a good job with that this week.”

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Washington guard Sahvir Wheeler, left, fights for the rebound against Utah center Keba Keita, center, and forward Jake Wahlin (10) Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Seattle. Wahlin, a true freshman, was a bright light in the Utes’ lopsided loss to the Huskies.

Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press