As this wild, pandemic-altered season of twists, turns, game postponements, puzzling losses and improbable wins has rolled on, Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak has used what he often refers to as “the data” to show his team it can beat any team, or lose to any team, on its 2020-21 schedule.
He hasn’t said much about dominating good teams, but that’s what happened Thursday night at the Huntsman Center, as middling Utah routed Pac-12 power Arizona 73-58 to show it can be the force the last half of the conference season that Krystkowiak has maintained it can be since the get-go.
“That proved we can compete with anybody,” Krystkowiak said.
Suddenly, after they overcame a 19-point deficit in the final nine minutes to upset Colorado in Boulder on Saturday and followed that with their most complete game of the season against Arizona (13-5, 7-5) at home, the Utes (8-7, 5-6) are looking like a top-tier team in the league and one that is probably better than an eighth-place team, which is where they were picked.
“It is always fun (to beat Arizona). ... But a win is a win. I will take it against anybody, but beating a quality team like that feels good.” — Utah wing Timmy Allen
“I thought we checked an awful lot of the boxes” towards playing a complete game, Krystkowiak said.
Don’t look now, but these Utes just might have what it takes to make some noise in March.
Led by Arizona native Timmy Allen’s 18 points and nine rebounds, Utah put five players in double figures in one of its most-balanced games of the season. Pelle Larsson added 14 points and four assists, while Alfonso Plummer popped in 12 off the bench and Branden Carlson and Riley Battin had 10 apiece.
It was Utah’s largest margin of victory over Arizona since the Utes surprised the Wildcats by 25 in a 1998 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game.
“It is always fun (to beat Arizona),” said Allen, from Phoenix. “… But a win is a win. I will take it against anybody, but beating a quality team like that feels good.”
Utah beat Arizona in almost every way imaginable — and due to a twist in the schedule, won’t see the Wildcats again, barring a Pac-12 Tournament matchup.
“Nobody has arrived here — we have got to keep coming in and working hard,” Krystkowiak cautioned.
But this is the kind of result that will get noticed around the league. Arizona had won seven of its last 10 and was outscoring opponents by 11 points per game.
Five players in double figures “speaks volumes as well,” Krystkowiak said.
Utah’s unselfishness on offense was shown early in the second half when Rylan Jones, who has not been shooting well, passed up an open 3-pointer to give Allen the same opportunity. Allen buried it, giving Utah a 43-31 lead with 15:46 remaining.
The previous possession, Carlson swished a triple. After the under-16 stoppage, Carlson made a 3-point play.
It was that kind of late-afternoon/night for the Utes, who only trailed for 12 minutes, 25 seconds.
There might not be another 8-7 team in the country that has trailed in games less than the Utes. And there might not be a better 8-7 team in the land, either.
“We had a little bit of magic take place at Colorado,” Krystkowiak said.
And the Utes brought it over the mountains — especially on defense.
With assistant coach Andy Hill putting together the scout on defense, Utah’s defense was as impressive as ever.
Arizona didn’t make a 3-pointer until 11:47 remained, a corner shot from Georgetown transfer James Akinjo. Azuolas Tubelis (team-high 17 points) followed with a hammer dunk to cut Utah’s lead to nine, but Larsson answered with a driving layup just seconds later.
The next time the Wildcats got it to single digits, Mikael Jantunen and Jones answered with layups to push the Utes’ lead to comfortable margins again. After that sequence, Jones again passed up an open 3-pointer, from the baseline, and found Battin for a better shot.
Arizona’s second 3-pointer came with 4 seconds left, and the Wildcats finished 2 of 9 from beyond the arc, 37% from the field. The Wildcats entered the game averaging 79 points and seven 3-pointers a contest, but didn’t come close to those numbers.
“Everything started for us defensively,” Krystkowiak said. “The key for us was outstanding defensive play from all of our guys.”
Even when foul problems hampered the Utes — Carlson, Jantunen and Larsson all had four with more than eight minutes remaining — bench players filled in admirably, although that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“We got big-boyed from time to time in the paint and got some fouls called on us,” Krystkowiak said.
Still, Utah outscored the Wildcats — the 12th tallest team in the country, according to KenPom.com — 36-28 in the paint and held the visitors to no fastbreak points. Utah had eight fastbreak points, thanks in part to seven steals.
Utah’s superior hustle in the first half was illustrated when Larsson collected a loose ball after a scramble, then threw a two-hand, behind-the-head pass to a streaking Plummer for a layup that gave the Utes a 32-27 halftime lead.
Plummer led the Utes with nine first-half points, while Allen had seven before the break.
In a half played at a pace to Utah’s liking, Arizona threatened to pull away at around the four-minute mark, as the Utes plodded through a scoring drought of 3 minutes, 17 seconds.
But Jantunen’s free throws after a hard fall opened a 7-0 run for the Utes, and they would not trail again until. Second-half failures after large first-half leads are becoming a distance memory.
Lahat Thioune gave the Utes a nice lift off the bench, hitting a short jumper after a nice assist from Larsson and playing strong defense.
The Wildcats won the first-half rebounding battle 16-14, but didn’t hit a triple before the break and committed eight turnovers, which the Utes turned into eight points.
Utah didn’t start particularly well, committing a shot clock violation on its first possession and missing a layup (Larsson) on its second. But the Utes settled in, got the pace they wanted, and then dominated a team that it hasn’t defeated much since joining the Pac-12 in 2011-12.
With a week before its next game, against Cal in Berkeley, Utah is starting to roll. And Krystkowiak doesn’t need the data to show him that.