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Ute Insiders: How good is the Pac-12 and this Utah basketball team? (podcast)

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Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak reacts to a referee as Utah and Oregon play in an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. Oregon won 69-64.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utah basketball team opened Pac-12 play with a solid win over a good Oregon State team and a hard-fought loss to an Oregon squad that was ranked No. 4 in the country. But how good is this Utah team and its league? Ute Insiders Dirk Facer, Mike Sorensen and Jody Genessy discuss the subject. They also look back at the Utes’ lopsided defeat to Texas in the Alamo Bowl and discuss how Utah’s 0-2 finish will impact the team’s legacy. That and more on this week’s episode. 

Dirk Facer: On this edition of the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast we talk basketball. The Utes opened with a split with the Oregon schools. We look back on the Alamo Bowl and ahead to other football news. That and more on the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast.

All right folks, welcome to another edition of the Deseret News Ute Insiders podcast. It’s a new year, 2020, the boys here are excited to be back in town after spending some time in the Alamo city and I think a lot of Ute fans know how that turned out. So let’s start with basketball. The Utes opened Pac 12 play splitting with Oregon and Oregon State. Mike, is that the best you could ask? 1-1 considering Oregon’s high ranking?

Mike Sorensen: Yeah, I think they’ve got to be happy with 1-1 because those are both good teams. You know, Oregon State was 10-2 and they went out and beat Colorado two days later. A very good team. Oregon’s No. 4 in the country. They lost to Colorado but Utah stayed with them right to the last shot of the game. So had to be happy with 1-1, I think.

DF: Jody, what do you think? Obviously Oregon State, familiar matchup with the coaches being former teammates and former coaches together. That was a good win against Oregon State and the Utes did give Oregon all they could handle right to the end. They just couldn’t get a rebound there the last two minutes.

Jody Genessy: Right. the thing that I took away from this weekend was that’s not the No. 9 team in the Pac-12. I mean, the Utes have done this last few years. They’ve been picked low and then they’ve outplayed their preseason prediction. And to me, I know it’s early, but this looks like a legit top half of the Pac-12 team. That’s a good win over Oregon State, like you guys said, and I was really impressed how the young guys played against an experienced Oregon team. And I talked to the Oregon coach and Oregon player after the game and you wouldn’t have thought that that was a team that was relying on some freshmen and sophomores. I mean they didn’t look at the Utes as a young team, they looked at them as a very talented, good opponent. Watch out because you know once these guys get that experience underneath their belt, this could be a legit contender.

DF: Mike, Both Gatch and Timmy Allen have stepped up their games, obviously, from last year. I thought in the Oregon game that both of them just stepped up and played beyond being sophomores. And then Rylan Jones is obviously doing some good things. Talk about the development of this team. You’ve seen them all season long and they seem to be getting better as the season progresses.

MS: Yeah, that’s one of their problems though, is they’re pretty much about a three-man team right now, because Timmy Allen has been carrying them on his shoulders all year long. And then he had probably his poorest game of the year against Oregon. He 6 out of 18, missed five foul shots, you know, which he hasn’t done all year. So I think it just kind of got to him. If he’d had a normal game they would have won that game.

DF: Is he getting tired? Because he’s logging a lot of minutes.

MS: He had 40 minutes, played the whole game. He played 38:41 against Oregon, so he played all but 1:19 of that series and that’s a problem they have is they have to get more bench help. And they’ve got to get more consistency. I mean those three guys have been pretty solid, Both’s been a little inconsistent and Rylan’s a little inconsistent but pretty dang good for a freshman. Riley Battin has had a couple of poor games. He’s got to step up. He needs to get more than two baskets in two games. And then their center position, he’s had four points the last four games from Branden Carlson. So they’re kind of doing that by committee, you know, they got Mickey Jantunen and Lahat Thioune, they come in and spell him.

But the biggest thing, and Larry addressed that today in his press conference, they’ve got to get more bench help. They’re basically a seven- or eight-man team right now. These guys are all playing 30, 35 minutes or 40 minutes a game and when they start having these games one after another it’s not gonna work out very well. And these guys are just going to get even more tired.

DF: Jody, the Utes have another tough challenge at Colorado, another ranked team, and they’re playing these guys on the road. Do you think what they did at home this week will translate to some good things in Boulder or is that just gonna be a tough challenge?

JG: It’ll be a tough challenge. They haven’t really played a road game for a while, you know, so they had all those neutral games and then a couple that started the Pac-12 schedule off at home so it will be interesting to see how they respond because obviously it’s a lot different when you have thousands of fans cheering against you. I thought it was kind of funny, (Will) Richardson from Oregon the other day said, I think that was one of the biggest crowds Utah’s ever had. They almost had 13,000. I’m like man, that’s kind of a sad indictment the state of college basketball. This place used to be packed every weekend, every time. But it’ll be different. But he actually liked that, he liked the energy that the fans brought to Saturday’s game because it made them want to play harder. And so that’s how the Utes need to approach going to Colorado. A really good team, off to a nice start in the Pac-12, ranked team, so they have to try to use that and channel that energy in the proper way.

DF: Mike, the schedule maker didn’t do the Utes any favor. They play Oregon, obviously, then Colorado, and then have the Arizona trip right after that. I mean, this is a very challenging stretch.

MS: Three ranked teams in a row and also these three games are all within a week’s time, less than a week actually. Sunday through Thursday and then Saturday. So in seven days they play three teams, two of which are ranked, and the third one, Arizona State, is off to a pretty good start. So I look at it this way that they’re not going to win all three, and they may not win even one or two. But I think if they can get one of those three it’s going to be a good deal for them. Because in the Pac-12 this year it’s looking like it’s gonna be pretty evenly matched. Right now half the league is 1-1, more than half. I think eight teams are 1-1-1 right now. So it’s going to be very close all the way through. And if they can pick up one road win to counteract that home loss the other day, that’s something they should be happy with that. If they can win one of the games probably most likely would be Arizona State, but if they could just pick up on win that would be an accomplishment.

DF: The curtain of distraction could be a big distraction. You never know who’s behind there.

Hey, how strong do you think the Pac-12 is this year, Mike? You talked about the balance there but obviously there’s teams like Arizona that on paper look like they could be really good by the end of the season, with Nico Mannion and guys like that. Colorado looks pretty solid. Oregon looks solid. Are there more than three top 25 teams? I know that’s what they have right now. But do you see more than three teams maybe competing for the championship?

MS: Well, yeah, don’t forget Washington, you know, they dominated last year and they were in the top 25. And they’ve lost a couple games. They won big their last game, but they could be right up there too. But I think overall, the league is improved over last year, the last two years. Obviously they are. I think they’re No. 6 ranked in the whole country as far as top conferences go, and they’ve been No. 7 or 8 in the past couple of years. So I think they could get four teams in the NCAA easily. Maybe even more than that as the year goes along. Some of these teams keep improving. Utah even has an outside chance.

JG: There’s a website called Bracketologist. So I’m going to give it a plug because it’s really interesting. It’s really well put together. I believe it’s from some Utah State students, so kudos to them. But bracketologist.com. It’s a college poll tracker, but they have the NCAA evaluation tool rankings, the NET rankings that are so important in this year’s determining which teams go to the NCAA, and right now it shows that the Pac-12 has six teams that are, as of right now, qualified for the NCAA Tournament. So like Mike said, this is a conference that’s in a better position than it has been in the past. I think it’s deeper. And you see there are a couple other teams that are just kind of on the bubble. So you have six, seven, eight teams in the Pac-12 that are pretty good. The bottom few teams aren’t, you know, not much of a challenge but right now they have the Utes at No. 6 and 48th overall in the country. So as of now Utah is in the NCAA Tournament. So go ahead and celebrate that.

DF: And go figure, you lose to Coastal Carolina and you’re still in the discussion. But beating Kentucky obviously helps. Mike, their preseason schedule, nonconference schedule has improved this year and they actually fared better in the month of November and December. Is that going to pay off at the end of the year? It obviously worked for Arizona State in recent years.

MS: Yeah, they beat Minnesota and they’re ahead of them in the NET rankings. BYU is you know, No. 30 or 31, they’re well ahead of them in the NET rankings, and Kentucky. So there’s three teams that are up in the top, you know, quadrant or whatever they call it. The first and second quadrant. So yeah, that helps them a lot. They have those bad losses to Tulane and Coastal Carolina. You know, the loss to San Diego State’s a good loss because they’re No. 1 in the NET ratings right now. And the loss to Oregon’s a good loss. So you know, some of these losses in the Pac-12 will be good losses. They just gotta watch out and not lose to Washington State and Cal, teams like that. That’s where there’s going to hurt. They got to win those games. Then like you mentioned Arizona State, they got into the NCAA with an 8-10 record in league a couple of years ago. I think if Utah could not go 9-9 or 10-8, they should have a good chance, like Jody said, of being in the NCAA tournament.

DF: Especially like you said, if the Kentuckys and the BYUs of the world continue to do well.

JG: Right now they’re in the First Four, they’re playing Akron, and the winner of that game will advance to play Florida State.

DF: It’d be nice if the Pac-12 was not involved in the First Four for once, you know, it seems like they’ve been well represented in recent years in the First Four. But Mike, pack your bag, head to Dayton. I wouldn’t go ahead and book that just yet. But we’ll see. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

And last thing, Mike, I just have to ask you, you follow this a lot? Is there a legitimate Final Four team in the Pac-12 this year? Or do we just have to wait and see if somebody emerges in Pac-12 play that’s a little more dominant just because of all the parity right now?

MS: Well, that’s the thing and there’s a lot of parity in college basketball. You know, we’ve had six No. 1 teams in the first six weeks, you know, in the AP poll. So you could say that Oregon State or Oregon has a team that looks like they could be in the Final Four, just looking at them, so it’s possible because there are not three or four dominant teams. So that opens it up for maybe a dozen teams that have a chance to get there. And certainly you look at Arizona and Oregon, they have a chance to be among the top dozen teams in the country. So I think there is a chance, you know, I wouldn’t count on it. But it’s not outside the possibility.

DF: Let’s talk Texas for a minute. The three of us covered the Alamo Bowl and Utah obviously on the bad end of a game against Texas. Jody, what was your immediate takeaway from the Alamo Bowl?

JG: Let me wake up. The Alamo Bowl, that was a huge disappointment to me. The Pac-12 championship game was understandable, disappointing. I really thought the Utes would bounce back and come in and make one last stand and go out with their heads held high. But boy, Texas really took it to them. I mean, it was a good old-fashioned woodshed moment for Texas. And you know, they’re right outside of Austin so it was heavily attended for the Longhorns. I mean, it was like playing a game there in Austin. But that was, yeah, that was tough.

MS: I think, you know, I just don’t think Utah emotionally ever really got over the Pac-12. You know, I mean, he talked about it all day, all this time, we have two or three weeks to get over it. I just think there was something missing emotionally, you know, because they had the same talented guys that won all those games by big margins all year, but they just I think were not quite into it as much as they should have been, maybe in the back of their minds they kept thinking, well, we should have been at the Rose Bowl or the playoff and we’re here. It’s a good ball and everything but I just think from the start they just did not look like they were into it as much as they had been all year. And they got behind, which they hadn’t done a lot this year, and they just had a hard time catching up.

JG: And they were making mistakes too. And I think there were some penalties that were uncalled for. There were some just silly mistakes and some talking back and forth that you don’t normally see as much as you did. I just thought they lost their composure. And honestly, I think it’s disappointing for Ute fans and the Utes organization because, you know, you go back to the Sugar Bowl and Alabama would say, we don’t want to be here, you know, we want to be somewhere else. And for the Utes to come around to the Alamo Bowl and kind of have that same feeling about the Alamo Bowl, you can understand it, but at the same time you got to fight through that and show some passion and show some pride in yourselves and your team. And yeah, they were missing a couple players. And things weren’t what they wanted them to be. But that was their last chance to fight together. And they flopped instead of fought.

DF: Mike, where do you think the legacy is? There was a lot of talk during the season that this team was as good as the Fiesta Bowl team, was as good as the Sugar Bowl team. But they ended up losing three games. Those two teams went undefeated, as Kyle Whittingham pointed out in his postgame press comments, apples and oranges when you’re playing in the Pac-12 compared to the Mountain West. Where do you put this 2019 team in that pecking order? Are they ahead of either of those two teams? Both, neither, where do you see them?

MS: Their legacy is definitely tarnished by that. I mean losing three games, 11-3 compared to 12-0 — there’s a big difference. Those two teams I think are way above this one. You know, this is a great year but they’re going to be up their numbers, if you want to go in order, maybe three or four in the last two decades. It’s unfortunate for them that people will think about the last two games instead of the first 12 when they did so well, but it does it does tarnish the legacy for this team because they just expected more and a lot of people expected more from them.

JG: Bill Riley had asked a question about what grade would you give the Utes this season, and I probably surprised some people but I gave them an A, because I think that overall this season, an 11-3, the third-best season ever, arguably, in your program history, I think that deserves an A. The way they dominated. They beat those eight opponents in a row by an average of 29 points, which included a close game.

DF: Every one of them ended up being a championship game in essence, because if they had they lost one of them USC would have ultimately won the division.

JG: Exactly. And you’ve written a couple of good articles pointing that out.

DF: Whittingham brings it up a lot.

JG: But I think overall, if you look at the whole body of work, yeah, they kind of flubbed up the final, but I think they did enough during the course of the semester, during the regular season to merit that A. Maybe an A-minus. Or maybe I’m just too soft of a teacher.

DF: I wouldn’t mind being in your class.

MS: Not to be negative. But the fact that their schedule really turned out to be pretty darn soft, when you think about it. They had three nonconference games against teams that weren’t that good. And then the teams in the Pac-12 they beat by these large margins were not that good, as it turned out. And the ones they struggled with, USC and Washington, they barely won those games. They lost to one, won the other one. So I think that a lot of times we may have been fooled a little bit in to thinking that they were a little better than they were because the Pac-12 as a whole was not that great this year. And so Utah won all these games so easily you thought, oh, they’re so great. And it was a great year but maybe they weren’t as great as we thought they might be.

DF: Do you take anything away from the fact that Utah’s three losses came against quote-unquote storied programs that are usually stocked pretty deep? USC, Oregon, Texas.

JG: That’s interesting. There might be some psychological issue there that the Utes subconsciously don’t feel like they deserve to be on the field at a competitive level with these teams. Dirk, this is deep.

DF: Obviously they’re deep, all three of those teams, but you know, before the game, you know, Alex Smith was there as an honorary captain. So I went down to try to talk to him and I watched Texas warm up and I said to somebody, they looked bigger, stronger, faster than any team I’d seen Utah play this season. And I told somebody that. I said, this Texas team, these guys are athletic, they’re big. That was a five-minute glance, and it turned out to be pretty accurate. Because they were a very physical team, very athletic, and they were healthy. And you know we forget that Texas only lost to LSU by a touchdown. And this year that saying something, considering how strong LSU is.

JG: It’s funny you point that out. I noticed some things that — this is not stuff that probably directly relates to on the field performance, but their band, the way the band played and they marched and they made the Texas and they made the ‘T’ and they had the — I forget what the Longhorn’s name is, but they brought the Longhorn out, and they had all these chants, just everything. The pageantry that came along with this football team, it just seemed like a bigtime program. And it was fun, and they made the pregame really interesting, got you hyped up. You knew you were playing a big program and not some junior college team. That wasn’t a shot at BYU.

DF: Hey, well, now people want to know what’s going on with football. Obviously the Senior Bowl is coming up, five Utes there. The East-West Shrine Bowl, three Utes participating in that. Utah is pretty well represented in these all-star games .Mike, do you think that’s going to translate to a lot of guys getting a call on draft day?

MS: Yeah you’d think so. I mean they’ve talked about how they have half a dozen to a dozen guys that should be playing in the NFL. And a lot of these bowl games they picked the top guys that the pros are looking at, so I think obviously it’s going to translate into guys playing in the NFL after that.

DF: Jody, big holes to fill. The entire secondary, the Utes need to find two new starting safeties, two new starting cornerbacks and a nickel back, in addition to replacing three massive holes on the defensive line and Francis Bernard at linebacker. There’s a lot of holes to fill. Do you think Utah has the depth to do that and do you think they’ll be a contender again next year, or is that just too much to overcome in one year?

JG: That’s gonna be a tough challenge. That’s a lot of great players and big holes to fill.

DF: We didn’t ever talk about the offense, losing Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley.

JG: Right. Yeah, because the defense is losing so much. But they do have some good players coming back and if the Utes have done one thing over the years, it’s expand the depth they have. You saw that just from the linebacker corps this year from the previous year, just how well they were able to transition almost seamlessly. So I think they do have some new guys coming that have opportunities. And that will be exciting, and there’ll be a lot of different races that’ll be fun to watch. But that’s just so much to overcome. I still think that they’re going to be a really good Pac-12 team next year. I just don’t know if they can overcome that big of a hurdle.

DF: And getting (Clark) Phillips, the recruit to switch from Ohio State to Utah. That’s obviously going to be huge for the secondary. But I think the priority obviously might be that secondary because you’re replacing five guys back there. And defensive line, like you pointed out, Utah tends to reload. Replacing Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu and John Penisini isn’t going to be easy, but they seem to find a way every year to find some other defensive linemen and have some depth there. But it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the secondary.

JG: I mean, they already moved (Jason) Shelley over. So that was one interesting aspect of the December offseason.

MS: Yeah. I think the program in recent years has developed a lot of depth. So a lot of guys we haven’t seen this year I think are waiting in the wings. I mean, I’m not saying they’re going to fall off the cliff, because I think that might have happened in recent years when they lost all their starters, but they have so many good players in the program that I think they’ll contend next year. They may not win the Ssouth, but I think they’ll be one of the top two or three teams in the South and probably go to a decent bowl game again next year.

DF: That’d be good. Signing day coming up in February, Utah signed the vast majority of their class already in the early signing period. Do you think there’s any priorities going into this or do they just go in and say we’re going to get the best available athlete and just plug somebody in? Or do you think they maybe are looking for a guy in the secondary? Maybe from the transfer portal?

JG: Yeah, I mean, because they lost another, Javelin Guidry to the NFL. So I think that’s going to be the big hole that they need to fill. So the more guys you have in the secondary, the better.

DF: Guys, next year Utah will be entering its 10th season in the Pac-12. Mike, you covered the Utes for a long time. Is that hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since they left the Mountain West for the Pac-12?

MS: Yeah, it really is. You know, especially for us old guys. It’s hard to figure that out. You know how the time flies like that?

DF: It does. You wake up and 10 years — are you kidding me? But what do you think? They’ve won back-to-back South titles. Took a while, as Kyle said, to span the the Grand Canyon. Making that jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Given what you just said, Mike, about you think they’ll be contenders again even though they have heavy graduation losses. Have they kind of arrived, are they a legitimate Pac-12 team and not this former Mountain West team trying to find their way? Do you think they’ve kind of settled in now and that they can compete?

MS: As football or just as a school?

DF: Maybe both. Football first and then in general.

MS: Yeah, I think they have. I think they’ve proven in football, certainly, winning two Pac-12 South titles in a row. And you know, basketball, you know, three or four years ago they were one of the two best in the league. And that’s an upward swing. I think in one or two years from now you’re gonna see a really top team, you know, because they have a lot of good guys coming in. So basketball I think is going to come back and be one of the top in the league. You can talk about, you know, gymnastics and stuff. They’ve dominated that over the years on the whole, and they had a baseball title. They’re getting better. They’ve done well in women’s soccer and stuff like that. But there are still these these other programs, UCLA and USC, are still going to dominate them in all these minor sports, and that’s just the way it’s always going to be. But I think Utah, you know, if you had said 10 years ago that looking back, you’d say wow, they really have shown that they belong in the league, I think, because they’ve certainly passed up a few programs and I think overall they have to be happy with their decade.

JG: Yeah, I think also, I mean 10 years — you look at the the athletes that are coming in. They don’t remember Utah being a Mountain West team. They don’t even know what the Mountain West is probably, most of them.

DF: They get to go to Wyoming, the football team this fall, so they’ll learn in a hurry.

JG: That’s bringing back some bad memories.

DF: We have a story to tell. Too long to share with you today, but it’s a good story. Buy Jody and I lunch and we’ll tell it to you.

JG: I think that for older people, older fans, the old farts like us, we obviously remember the old days, the WAC, the Mountain West, but the younger generation, the people that say OK, boomer to people like us, Utah is just one of the —

DF: I’ve yet to have someone say that to me, but I’m looking forward to it.

JG: My 13-year-old and 15-year-old say that to me all the time. I’m not a boomer, I’m a Gen Xer!

DF: But don’t you think? I mean, Mike? Who would have guessed that the first men’s title would come from baseball of all sports?

MS: Bill Kinneberg.

DF: And I’m real happy for Bill in that, but that just shows how weird this journey’s been a little bit.

MS: Yeah. But you know, like I say, they’ve been up there close in a lot of sports and I think as the years go along they’ll start getting more and more titles besides skiing and gymnastics.

DF: Well, we gotta wrap this up soon. Richie Steadman is giving me the eye, like come on, guys. You said you weren’t going to talk this long. And so we’re gonna wrap it up. The Red Rocks opened with a win over Kentucky in the season opener. What do you guys think? You think with the new coaching regime that gymnastics will be able to stay on that championship contender level?

JG: Yeah, I mean, they’ve had such a long, steady tradition of success. And it’s not like they’re completely starting over. So you know, I think that they’re a program where they just reload, restock every year and they don’t have to start over.

DF: Mike, do you think that’s one of those programs we talked about?

MS: They’ll always be in the top six in the country, it just seems like that’s been that way for 30 years and it’s continuing on. They just kind of, like you say, reload, restock and they always seem to have one of the better teams.

DF: All right guys, women’s hoops off to a 7-7 start. But the Pac-12 is absolutely brutal. They have a lot of ranked teams and a lot of top 10 teams.

MS: Last week Utah went up to Oregon, they played No. 3 Oregon State the first night and lost by 29. Played No. 2 Oregon the next night and lost by 30 something. They’re a young team and they’re going to play No. 8 UCLA this week. So it’s just one after another. Last year they stayed close to all these teams and had a pretty good season but Lynne Roberts was talking about that — they’re a little young, they’re a couple years away. So they’re just gonna have to be patient and you know, win a few here and there, but they’re not going to be going to any tournaments at the end of the year I’m afraid this year.

JG: Congratulations to Lynne Roberts. Was it the 300th or 400th win?

DF: A milestone and that’s always worth noting. So hey, Jody, how about a plug for the newsletter?

JG: This week we have another fun, entertaining, exciting Ute Insiders newsletter. We have Utah by 5, we have a roundup of other interesting stories going on. Just a lot of this and that about the Utes. Every Wednesday it comes out into your inbox. All you have to do to sign up is go to deseret.com to the newsletters and click on the button there. Lots of fun.

DF: All right before we sign off till next week, a shout-out to my colleague Kurt Kragthorpe, former Deseret News sports writer who finished his career with the Salt Lake Tribune. Kurt retired after the Alamo Bowl. We wish him well on behalf of Mike and Jody. Happy trails, Kurt. All the best to you as a retiree. Folks, thanks for listening. Until next time, we will talk to you later.

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