Utes look to get back on track in the desert

Ryan Kostecka

The last two weeks are ones that Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wants to put behind him and move forward. 

After barely losing 69-64 at home to No. 8 Oregon on Saturday, Jan. 4, the Utes traveled to face No. 20 Colorado this past Sunday and got absolutely demolished, 91-52, by the Buffaloes.

“Michigan State was 5-0 in the Big Ten and got smacked. Life is hard. The Baltimore Ravens were the best team in the NFL and they got it handed to them," Krystkowiak said. “You have to be ready to compete and I think there are some deficiencies in our game right now that we have to clean up. ... The key for us is we need to stay together. Our group needs to stay together and keep growing."

Jan 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Members of the Utah Utes basketball team during the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing to grow, and looking like the team that opened up Pac-12 play with a win over Oregon State before almost taking down the Ducks is where Krystkowiak wants to see his young team be.

And they'll have that chance again on Thursday when the Utes (10-5, 1-2 Pac-12) travel to Tucson, Arizona to face the Wildcats (11-5, 1-2 Pac-12). Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. MST and will be broadcasted on the Pac-12 Network.

“We have a lot of back-to-back deals, getting on the road to the Arizonas and now we have to take that stuff (from Sunday) and be sharper,” Krystkowiak said. “Life on the road in the Pac-12 right now is really difficult. I don’t know if some of our young guys got a sense for that with those teams (Oregon and Oregon State) coming into our building, but you get a sense of what kind of punch you’re going to get stepping into foreign territory and we’ve got to check a lot more boxes, especially when we’re on the road.”

Sophomore sensation Timmy Allen will be looking to rebound from his worst performance of the season against Colorado (7 points, 2-of-11 shooting) in his home state of Arizona. Allen, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 20.2 points per game, is the key because when he's playing well, the Utes have proven to be a tough out.

Also, Utah is going to be need a third option to arise in scoring as Allen and Both Gach (12.5 points per game) combine to make up 43-percent of Utah's overall scoring. Whether it be guard Rylan Jones (10.6 points) or Riley Battin (9.1 points), one of them has to step up become a true threat when either Gach or Allen take a break. 

Leading the way for Arizona are a trio of freshmen in Nico Mannion Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. 

Jan 4, 2020; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Nico Mannion (1) dribbles the ball against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the second half at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

They all bring something different as Nnaji is the low-post presence, Green is the shooter and Mannion is the one who puts it all together. They account for 54-percent of Arizona's total scoring while Nnaji averages 8.5 rebounds and Mannion puts up 6.3 assists per game.

“It’s tough, Arizona is always a tough situation,” Krystkowiak said. “There’s elite crowds, the teams we’re about to play have elite point guards, elite size, it’s the same theme this week when we were talking about trying to beat Colorado.”

With a win, Utah will be able to bounce back to .500 in conference play, with a good chance of returning home next week at 3-2. But another loss would further the downward spiral the team currently finds itself on, something Krystkowiak knows his team is better than.

“I do think that 11 days we had off prior to the league starting, these eight days, our team got better,” Krystkowiak said outside the visiting locker room at CU Events Center on Sunday evening. “We didn’t get better when we put it on the floor. We didn’t show it in this opportunity, but those days didn’t go by the wayside. This was the first of three games in six days, so those dog days where you’re trying to grind through practice and figure things out really are no longer.”