LOS ANGELES — Before the season started, not many folks figured the Utah basketball team would have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Not with a team of mostly freshmen (11) and sophomores (4) that has been listed as the second or third youngest team in the whole country out of 353 Division I teams.
Yet, here we are at the end of January and Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak is talking about the possibilities of the NCAA Tournament for his young squad.
“I don’t know what we can achieve, but I know what we’re trying to achieve and that’s certainly getting a ticket to the (NCAA Tournament),” he said at his Tuesday press conference. “There’s ways that that can happen. I’ve said every year since I’ve been here — until someone tells me we’re not going, that’s something we believe. We don’t talk about it a whole lot but we all know what we’re trying to do.”
The Utes could take a huge step in that direction with a win over USC Thursday night at the Galen Center as the two teams are set for a 7:30 p.m. MT tip.
The Trojans rank No. 39 in the latest NET rankings, which the NCAA uses to evaluate teams for the NCAA Tournament in March. So a win over Thursday would be considered a “Quad 1” win, which includes road victories against Top 75 teams (Quad 1 wins also include wins over top 50 teams on a neutral court and wins are top 30 teams at home).
The Utes, who jumped five spots to No. 69 Wednesday in the latest NET rankings, already have Quad 1 victories this year, over Kentucky (24) and BYU (29) and Quad 2 wins over Minnesota (44), Washington (48) and Nevada (84).
“NET number-wise, we’re 10 spots out of potentially making it,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got an opportunity to play a number of Quad 1 games and we’ve done enough in the preseason and the conference is strong.”
In USC, the Utes will be playing a team that was picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll, but currently sits in a tie for second place at 5-2 with Colorado.
The Trojans are led by 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, who leads the team in both scoring (17.3 ppg) and rebounding (8.9 rpg). He’s aided by seniors Nick Rakocevic, a 6-11 center who averages 11.0 ppg and 8.3 rpg and Jonah Mathews, a 6-3 guard who averages 13 points a game. Other expected starters are forward Daniel Utomi (6.6 ppg) and guard Ethan Anderson (5.7 ppg).
“Jonah Mathews has been around a long time and their big guys, Rakocevic and I can’t pronounce his name (Okongwu), are a load inside,” said Krystkowiak. “They’re an elite rebounding team, a shot-blocking team ... super athletic ... they’re playing really well (8-1) at home and there’s a reason they’re 5-2 in league conference. They’re anchored a lot by the freshman, who a lot of people didn’t know would be this good.”
The Trojans are the top offensive rebounding team in the conference and rank third in rebounding margin at 5.15. They’re also third in blocked shots, but last in turnover margin.
The Utes will need another good game from their inside players to battle USC’s big men inside. Freshman Mikael Jantunen came off the bench to score 16 points and freshman center Branden Carlson added 14 points. Starting forward Riley Battin only scored two against Washington State, but led the Utes with 17 points in the win over Washington. Rylan Jones is coming off a pair of big games that helped him win Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.
After Thursday’s game, the Utes will play UCLA Sunday at 1 p.m. MT at Pauley Pavilion.
Utes on the air
Utah (12-7, 3-4) at USC (16-4, 5-2)
Galen Center, Los Angeles, CA
Thursday 7:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700 AM