The Utes head to Oregon this weekend with intentions of breaking the trend they’ve seen develop during their nonconference road games. It also wouldn’t hurt if they got a few more healthy bodies in uniform.
The script for Utah in enemy territory has gone like this: At some point during a competitive, tightly contested game the Utes help fuel a game-changing run by their hosts by committing a succession of ill-timed turnovers and falling victim to momentary lapses in defense and/or rebounding. It happened in each of the three losses at UNLV, Butler and BYU.
The Utes (8-3) hope they’ve fixed those issues as they get set to open Pac-12 Conference play against Oregon (10-3) at 8 p.m. MT Friday at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore. The Ducks, who also will be playing their conference opener, enter this meeting having won the past nine games against the Utes.
“Sometimes I think if you have a group of guys that you’ve been fortunate enough to coach for two or three years, there can be a little bit more gray area and you rely on your players to make plays and not have turnovers and kind of understand each other,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I still think there’s enough newness with the roster that we have right now [that] within that gray area we were finding some mistakes.”
Krystkowiak hopes clarification and simplification will help. Specifically, the turnovers that turn into fast-break opportunities are what Krystkowiak wants to curtail. On another team’s court, those plays just feed the crowd and provide energy to the home squad.
“I’d like to be a team that doesn’t beat themselves,” Krystkowiak said. “You’re going to have to beat us.”
Injuries will leave the Utes shorthanded going into Friday night, but it’s still unclear to what extent. Redshirt freshman forward Chris Seeley (gall bladder surgery) and freshman forward Donnie Tillman (sprained foot) remain out, while senior starters David Collette (abdominal strain) and Gabe Bealer (hyper-extended knee) have had limited participation in practice this week. Both Collette and Bealer could be game-day decisions.
Senior guard Justin Bibbins and senior forward Tyler Rawson picked up the lion’s share of the scoring burden without leading scorer Collette (13.5 ppg) and super sub Tillman (10.7 ppg) in the Utes’ most recent game, a win over Northwestern State on Dec. 20. Rawson and Bibbins scored 25 points apiece in that win.
Instead of putting the onus on one or two players to handle the ball and provide offense during crucial instances, Bibbins pointed to sharing the ball as the key for the Utes to eliminate their miscues on the road in hostile environments.
“I think for us, we need to trust each other more in the second half,” Bibbins said. “So swing the ball more amongst everybody instead of putting it in the hands of one person and one person trying to make the play. That’s usually when the turnovers are happening. If we trust in each other in late-game [situations] when the game gets tough, then we’re going to be OK.”
Friday night figures to provide a tough test right out of the gate for the Utes. The Ducks, a program coming off of a Final Four appearance last season, enter this weekend with an 8-1 record at home and an .894 winning percentage at home since Matthew Knight Arena opened in 2011.
The Ducks were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason poll despite losing four starters from last season’s squad.
“We just need to focus on ourselves,” Bibbins said. “I think that’s the biggest point. The competition is going to [step] up, and we’re going to play better teams. But we need to focus on what we’re doing and get better every day. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. If we can just keep working on rebounding and not turning over the ball, we plan on playing in the [Pac-12] championship and going far in the NCAA Tournament.”
UTAH AT OREGON
Tipoff • 8 p.m. MT Friday
TV • FS1
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 8-3, Oregon 10-3
Series history • Oregon leads 19-9
About the Utes • Utah enters Pac-12 Conference play having held opponents to 67.9 points per game, the lowest average points against of any conference team. Utes opponents have scored 70 points or less eight times in 11 games. They’ve also held opponents to 29.1 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line, the best 3-point percentage defense in the conference and 13th-best in NCAA Division I. … The Utes are coming off a win over Northwestern State that included the third-most made 3-pointers (15) by the Utes in a single game in program history. Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson combined to go 7 of 16 from long range. … Bibbins, a graduate transfer from Long Beach State, has averaged 12.1 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor (46 percent on 3-pointers) through his first 11 games with the Utes.
About the Ducks • The Ducks defeated Central Arkansas 96-82 on Dec. 20, their fifth consecutive win before beginning conference play. … Sophomore guard Payton Pritchard, an Oregon native, has averaged a team-leading 16.3 points per game. He has scored 10 points or more in 10 of 11 games this season. He enters this weekend shooting 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range. He has scored 20 points or more four times this season. … The status of redshirt junior forward Paul White, who transferred from Georgetown following the 2015-16 season, remains uncertain after he suffered a concussion against Fresno State. During the conference’s weekly conference call, Ducks coach Dana Altman said White was set to be re-evaluated late this week and could be cleared by Friday’s game.