Runnin’ Utes ‘have climbed a nice little mountain’ with recent road wins, ready to host Arizona on Thursday
Upset win on the road at Colorado has Utes (7-7, 4-6 in Pac-12) feeling good about themselves and their chances of making a run in the second half of the regular season
What a difference a win over a quality opponent on the road makes.
Those were the sentiments of Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and junior forward Riley Battin as they spoke to reporters in separate Zoom calls Wednesday, four days after the Utes upset Colorado 77-74 in Boulder to even their overall record to 7-7 and bump their Pac-12 record to 4-6.
“I feel like within our program, we have climbed a nice little mountain in terms of how our team is playing, and what it is we are trying to do, and it takes a certain number of games before you can feel that way,” Krystkowiak said in response to a question about the Pac-12’s strength this year, noting that “a lot of us are starting to catch up” with leagues that got earlier starts, such as the Big Ten.
“I think that win will only help us moving forward, getting a big win like that when we have had a tough go with some of these close games,” Battin said.”It is definitely a boost for morale, and a little insight into what we can accomplish this season.”
A case could be made that the Utes are the best .500 team in the country, with road wins at Washington State and Colorado, a home win over Stanford and a close loss to UCLA.
“I think that win will only help us moving forward, getting a big win like that when we have had a tough go with some of these close games. It is definitely a boost for morale, and a little insight into what we can accomplish this season.” — Utah forward Riley Battin.
Up next is another top-level Pac-12 team, Arizona.
The Wildcats (13-4, 7-4) invade the Huntsman Center on Thursday for a 5 p.m. MST showdown with the surging Utes, who will allow both teams’ players’ families into the arena for the first time this season. The game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.
Fourth in the Pac-12, Arizona has won seven of its last 10 games and is led by Georgetown transfers James Akinjo, one of the top point guards in the league, if not the country. Akinjo is averaging 5.7 assists per game, tied with Colorado’s McKinley Wright for second-most in the Pac-12.
In their only meeting last year, Arizona blasted Utah 93-77 in Tucson on Jan. 16, 2020.
“Any time you play Arizona, you have to expect a tough game, regardless of who is playing,” Battin said. “I know last year we got beat pretty bad at their place. We just have to be ready.”
Arizona, which only plays the Utes once this year, barring a matchup in the conference tournament, went on a 17-5 run last year to take a 52-28 halftime lead and cruised in the second half. Timmy Allen and Battin scored 16 apiece, while Rylan Jones had 11 and Alfonso Plummer nine.
The Wildcats are coming off a 71-50 win over Cal on Saturday. Krystkowiak said the Utes had a “great practice” Wednesday afternoon and have had a “good week” since rallying from a 19-point deficit in the final nine-plus minutes to beat the Buffaloes.
“We will have an opportunity to play one of the better teams in the country on Thursday and then we will see” whether they can squeeze a game in before next Thursday’s game at Cal after Sunday’s game with Arizona State was postponed for the second time due to COVID-19 issues within ASU’s program.
Krystkowiak called the win over CU “huge” in terms of generating midseason momentum for the Utes.
“It is good medicine,” he said. “It is big medicine to get a win like that against a top team. … So it is a fine line (between winning and losing), but it has certainly been high-energy here, and there have been some smiles, and in a year, in a season maybe that we were going through, I think it is really important to have some feel-good mixed in, and this was definitely an example of some feel-good.”
Krystkowiak also feels good about Utah’s chances of getting in all 20 Pac-12 games before the conference tournament begins March 10. He suggested that the Utes and Sun Devils may have to “flip a coin” to decide which city — Salt Lake City or Tempe — could host a doubleheader to cut down on travel.
“So it makes an awful lot of sense to maybe shift some things around,” he said.
With 1,127 points, Allen — a Phoenix-area native — is No. 31 on Utah’s all-time scoring list. He needs three points to catch Chas Menatti for 30th and seven to catch George Fisher for 29th.
To beat the Wildcats, Utah will need a balanced effort, Battin said, noting that the Utes “are in a good sport right now. Our record might not be a good indicator of how good this team actually is.”
Arizona (13-4, 7-4) at Utah (7-7, 4-6)
Thursday, 5 p.m. MST
Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 700 AM