Monday January 5th, 2015

Utah is not in the middle of a program resurgence. It’s at the apex.

Led by early frontrunner for national coach of the year Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes are out to a 12-2 start after defeating UCLA 71-39 at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. Krystkowiak, in his fourth year at the helm, has led Utah to 33 wins in the last one and a half seasons. The program had 35 total wins in its previous three seasons.

The 10th-ranked Utes are led by All-American candidate Delon Wright, who paced Utah in scoring with 11 points to go along with seven rebounds and five assists Sunday. With a supporting cast of Jakob Poeltl and Brandon Taylor, Utah has the most talent since the late 1990s when Andre Miller, Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac were on campus.

This is a program that had just 14 wins during the 2009-10 campaign, the last season before Utah accepted an invitation to join the Pac-12 Conference, and was somehow expected to compete with the likes of perennial powers UCLA and Arizona. Four years later, though, Utah has turned the tables on its new conference.

Sean Miller’s Wildcats are still the favorites to capture the Pac-12 crown, and rightfully so, but nobody appears to have let the Utes know. They don’t care. They think they can compete with every team in the country ... because they can.

On offense, Utah moves the ball with direction and purpose, and Krystkowiak's NBA experience shines through. But the Utes also show the patience to earn excellent shot opportunities. The Utes entered Sunday shooting 51 percent from the floor as a team; they shoot 40 percent from behind the arc and average more than 15 assists per game.

Defensively, Utah is even better. At No. 17 in the country, and No. 1 in the Pac-12, in scoring defense, the Utes allow fewer than 57 points per game. They have a scoring margin approaching plus-20 and have gotten to the free throw line more than 100 more times than their opponents. On Sunday, they held UCLA to 29 percent shooting from the floor (15-52, 1-11 on 3-pointers) and didn’t allow the Bruins to record their 30th point until only five minutes were left in the game.

The beatdown that Utah handed UCLA on Sunday is a microcosm of the role reversal for these two programs. How UCLA, once a mecca for the top recruits in the country and one of the winningest programs in college basketball history, has been bereft of talent for the last few years is mind boggling. The talent gap between the Bruins and the Pac-12 elite has come to an ugly head in 2014-15.

In addition to the historic loss to Kentucky a couple weeks ago, UCLA has already fallen to Oklahoma, Alabama and Colorado this season, the latter three winnable games on all fronts. The Bruins lack a sense of cohesion on offense, with players trying too hard to create their own, contested shots. On the defensive end, they are getting beat far too easily off the dribble and appear confused at times. In the first half on Sunday, Wright had a coast-to-coast layup in which he dribbled past all five Bruin defenders, not one of them stopping the ball.

For Utah, this is its fifth win in a row and the second lowest point total it has allowed all season (it allowed 38 to Pacific in its season opener). The schedule won’t get any easier for the Utes, though. A date with Arizona looms on Jan. 17. The higher they rise in the rankings, the tougher teams are going to play them as the bullseye inevitably grows.

But Krystkowiak's team is built for March. Teams that thrive in the NCAA tournament have multiple scoring threats, create high-percentage shots and play sound, collective defense. Utah has a scary mix of all three. Could this edition of the Utes replicate the success that former head coach Rick Majerus had en route to the 1998 Final Four? Perhaps Utah could do something that its late-90s counterparts couldn’t do: win the school’s second national title.

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