The college basketball season is in full swing and although conference play is a couple of weeks away, the annual Utah-BYU match-up will be a good primer for what to expect from both teams in 2014. Utah (8-1) so far this season looks much improved from last year behind the play of Delon Wright and the maturity of Jordan Loveridge and has been solid offensively, scoring at least 70 points in eight of nine games. BYU (8-3) has hit the ground running, playing three ranked teams already instead of Utah's much softer opening schedule and looks to have found a legitimate star in the front court with true freshman Eric Mika. Utah has lost seven straight against the Cougars and has only one win stretching back to 2006. Can the Utes reverse their fortunes? Or will BYU continue to dominate with another win? Here's a position-by-position look at this week's match up and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
There's no question that Wright has been the catalyst to Utah's success so far this season. Wright, a Juco transfer, is the floor general and consistently feeds Loveridge and others for easy scoring opportunities in transition. The junior is averaging 16 points per game, seven rebounds and already has 28 steals and 56 assists through nine games. Sixty percent of his assists also go for dunks and lay-ups, showing his impact on easy points for the Utes.
Matt Carlino will be the Cougars' answer to Wright and although he's not as flashy as Wright, he's a leader on the court for BYU. Carlino is second on the team with 17 points per game and has three more assists this season than Wright with 61 against tougher competition. Carlino will feed Tyler Haws and Mika all night in the Cougars' offense, but the question will come down to how he can limit Wright if they're matched up defensively.
Sophomore Brandon Taylor is the guy in the back court to compliment Wright. Taylor is a shooter and the Cougars will have to pay attention to him behind the arc, where he's shooting nearly 42 percent from three point land after finishing second in three point percentage in the Pac-12 last season. Taylor averages around 11 points per game and is a great facilitator, with 37 assists of his own. He'll have to be a threat on the outside for the Utes to take this one.
Tyler Haws is the best of the best that the Cougars have to offer and has been a force all season long. Haws averages an outstanding 23 points per game, is averaging five rebounds per game and is shooting 45 percent from behind the three point line. Defending Haws will have to be the primary focus of the Utes and although they can't hope to smother him completely, they'll have to limit his production to win this one.
Princeton Onwas is more of a hybrid guard/forward player and will most likely be the starter alongside Loveridge. Onwas is the weak link of the Utes' starting five, scoring only five points per game, but he's still second on the team with nine steals and has added 35 rebounds. Onwas and sophomore Dakarai Tucker have shared the duties of this position for most of the season, with Tucker starting five games before Onwas took over. Tucker averages around eight points per game and will rotate throughout Saturday night's clash.
Kyle Collinsworth is also more of a hybrid/guard forward and could give both Onwas and Tucker problems. The sophomore averages around 13 points per game, is second on the team with just over eight rebounds per game and has 14 steals so far this season. Collinsworth has been the second-best facilitator on the team behind Carlino with 57 assists and will open up opportunities for the guys around him, especially if he can overwhelm Onwas.
This is the most exciting match up in this game, pitting Loveridge against Mika. After his freshman growing pains, Loveridge has emerged as an offensive force and a perfect compliment to Wright, dominating down low and crashing the boards. He averages 17 points per game and leads the team with about 10 boards per game. He's powerful enough to drive to the basket at the power forward spot, but athletic enough to be a headache at the small forward spot for the Cougars. Utah's potential in this game will hinge on his ability to start fast, produce in the paint and score at least 25 points.
Mika came from Lone Peak High School with a ton of hype and has lived up to the billing so far. He's averaging 14 points and six rebounds per game, playing well off both Carlino and Haws. He has the tendency to go through slumps and stretches of frustration, like any young player, but the Cougars will need him at his best to outshine Loveridge. It shouldn't be a problem with his athleticism and size advantage over the Utah phenom.
Although Loveridge gets most of the attention, Renan Lenz has been a consistent and underrated asset for the Utes this season. The senior is the seasoned leader of the Utah squad averaging about 10 points per game with four rebounds. His greatest impact has been defensively, with an astounding 20 blocks so far this season. Dallin Bachynski is a great alternative with Lenz needs a breather and provides great height and length off the bench, averaging five points and five rebounds per game.
Nate Austin will most likely be matched up with Lenz and Bachynski on Saturday and has been solid all-around for the Cougars this season. He averages about five points and nine rebounds per game, doing the dirty work so Mika is free to make plays. The Cougars will need Austin to win one-on-one match ups with both Lenz and Bachynski in the paint, boxing them out for valuable boards.
Larry Krystkowiak knows the score of the last few games against BYU and will hope to scratch out a win this time to end Utah's skid. Offensively, he has weapons in Wright and Loveridge that have been few and far between in his Utah tenure. As long as he can get both going early with a few outside shots from Taylor sprinkled in, the Utes should be able to compete. Defensively, Krystkowiak will have to find a way to limit Haws' impact and frustrate Mika early. If all of those things go according to plan, the Utes should take this one.
Dave Rose's biggest priority in this one will be striking a balance between zone and man defense to limit Wright and Loveridge. The Cougars were outrun and out hustled by UMass earlier this season by playing too much zone, something that won't work against Utah's blistering fastbreaks. Rose will have to put Mika and Haws in a position to score at least 40 to 45 points combined for the Cougars to win this game as BYU is still struggling defensively to contain teams to this point. Another advantage BYU has is Rose's decision to play a tough schedule early on, priming the Cougars for this game.
Prediction: Last season's game was low scoring and a "grind it out" win for BYU. This game will look nothing like that, with the potential of explosive offensive efforts and scoring on both sides. Loveridge and Wright give Utah weapons the Utes haven't had in recent seasons that will push the Cougars, but BYU still has the edge in experience. Carlino and Haws have been there before, bringing a veteran savvy to the table and despite BYU's defensive deficiencies, the Cougars will edge this one out 88-84.