2016 NCAA tournament team previews: Utah Utes
As part of its preview of the 2016 NCAA men's basketball tournament, SI.com is taking a look at all 68 teams in the field. RPI and SOS data from realtimerpi.com. Adjusted offense and defense statistics are from kenpom.com and measure the number of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, and the team's national rank. All other advanced stats are also from kenpom.com (unless noted otherwise) and are through March 14.
Adjusted offensive/defensive efficiency: 113.7 (27th)/97.5 (51st)
Seed: Midwest No. 3
Impact Player: Jakob Poeltl, sophomore, forward, 17.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 65.6 FG%
The Case For: The Utes are anchored by one of the best big men in the country in the 7-foot Poeltl and they have great size up and down their roster. A pair of upperclassmen guards, senior Brandon Taylor and junior Lorenzo Bonam, balance Poeltl in Utah’s top-30 offense and few teams shoot the ball more efficiently, especially inside the arc.
The Utes’ defense ranks just outside the top 50 nationally in efficiency and there isn’t a better group in the country at limiting opponent’s free-throw rate (FTA/FGA). On average, Utah’s opponents shoot fewer than one free throw for every four field-goal attempts, for a free-throw rate of 23.4%.
Utah is an efficient group on both ends of the court that has size, an elite big man and a veteran core. It lost to eventual national champion Duke in the Sweet 16 by six points last season with a very similar cast and it’ll enter this year’s NCAA tournament having won nine of its last 10 games.
The Case Against: If you’re a believer of the old saying, “You’re only as good as your last game,” then Utah has left a bad taste in your mouth ever since its 31-point shellacking in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon on Saturday. The Ducks are the best team the Utes have played this season, according to kenpom.com, and Oregon swept Utah in their three meetings by an average of 19.7 points. Utah also lost to Miami by 24 points on a neutral court in November and by 17 points at Wichita State in December.
While Utah picked up wins over Arizona, California (twice), Duke, Texas Tech, USC, Colorado, Oregon State and Temple—all of whom are tournament teams—the Utes have struggled against the best of the best. If Utah manages to win its pod with games against Fresno State and Seton Hall/Gonzaga, which is no guarantee given Seton Hall’s recent surge and Gonzaga’s dynamic frontcourt, a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State looms. And the Spartans, winners of 13 of their 14 games since Jan. 23, are one of the best teams in the country.
Utah’s most glaring defensive deficiencies are its inability to force turnovers (15.2% turnover rate, 327th nationally) and three-point defense (36.8%, 284th nationally), which is a bad combination if opponents can both take care of the ball and convert from deep. A hot shooting night from Seton Hall’s trio of Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez or Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Eron Harris and Bryn Forbes could put the nail in the coffin of Utah’s season.
SI prediction: Beat No. 14 Fresno State in the first round, beat No. 11 Gonzaga in the second round, lose to No. 2 Michigan State in the Sweet 16.