A 5-foot-8, 150-pound graduate transfer from Long Beach State, Justin Bibbins joined the Utes men’s basketball program in the summer perceived as a small guard from a small conference trying to play against the big boys.
Now, Bibbins leads the Utes in scoring (14.2 points per game), assists (4.8 per game), 3-point shooting (44.6 percent) and steals (1.3 per game). He’s been arguably the best player for a team predicted to be in the bottom half of the Pac-12, but is instead competing for a top-four finish.
And how Bibbins plays — and powers the Utes — in the final three games of the regular season, starting Thursday against UCLA in the Huntsman Center, will go a long way toward determining if Utah finishes on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Utes senior forward David Collette said teammates haven’t been surprised by Bibbins’ play, if only because they didn’t know much about him before he joined the program.
“He started doing his thing from the beginning in games, and that was just kind of what we all expected from him,” Collette said.
Compton Magic AAU club director Etop Udo-Ema watched Bibbins lead his team of “underrecruited” players to wins over teams laden with Top-100 players like Arizona’s Chase Jeter. He also watched Bibbins two summers ago ”dominate” the Real Run collegiate summer league that featured current Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, plus current USC forwards Chimezie Metu and Benny Boatright.
“He was a killer in AAU. He was a killer in high school. He was a killer,” said Udo-Ema of Bibbins. “He was a winner.”
Yet, Bibbins may be the one who sold himself short when it came to make his initial college choice. Bibbins shut down his recruiting early in the offseason following his junior year at Bishop Montgomery High School in California when Long Beach State was the first school to offer him a scholarship.
“I have no idea,” said Bibbins of why he committed when he did. “Thinking back to it, I wish I would’ve waited out my options, went on some visits. I was young back then, I was excited that I even got a scholarship offer.”
In his final season at Long Beach State, Bibbins played against Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Washington, Oregon State, Kansas and Texas. So when Bibbins came to Utah, he did so as a confident and battle-tested player.
While Bibbins was an two-time All-Big West selection, he’s posted a higher field goal percentage, 3-point shooting percentage and a higher assist-turnover ratio this season with the Utes than he did at Long Beach State.
“I think having teammates around me that perform at a higher level really opens the game up for me,” Bibbins said. “I think at Long Beach, teams on the scouting report keyed in more on me. When I came here, they can’t key in on me like they can on other teams because I have Ty [Rawson] as a shooter. I have Dave [Collette] to go to. They have more aspects on the team that they have to worry about. It just frees up the game. I can get more open shots.”
For having taken a step up in competition, even Bibbins admits he didn’t expect to score as much as he has this season. He came in expecting to be more facilitator than shooter.
“I think one of the biggest characteristics is that he’s cut of the right stuff, and he gets it — the process that we talk about it,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “You’re supposed to get better every year, and I don’t think he’s a guy that gets complacent with where he is.
“He’s always been self-driven to improve. He’s extremely coachable. He put the time in. He handles his business, not just in the basketball arena but in class and around our community and a bunch of areas. I’m not surprised when it happens to those kind of guys.”
UCLA AT UTAH
Tipoff • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 700 AM
Records • UCLA 19-8, 10-5; Utah 17-9, 9-6
Series history • UCLA leads 10-7
About the Bruins • Junior point guard Aaron Holiday, named the conference’s player of the week on Monday, has averaged 19.4 points per game and 5.7 assists per game. He scored 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting and registered six assists in a 83-64 win over the Utes on Jan. 11. … UCLA earned an overtime win at home against Oregon on Saturday night. Kris Wilkes scored 19 points and Holiday scored 29 in the win. They each went 5-of-9 from behind the 3-point line. … Senior Thomas Welsh ranks second in the conference in rebounding (10.7 per game). Welsh has also averaged 13.1 points per game.
About the Utes • Saturday night’s 77-70 win at Washington State extended the Utes’ winning streak to four, which matches their longest streak of the season. … Senior forward Tyler Rawson averaged 15 points, 13 rebounds and four assists per game while shooting 12-for-26 from the field during last weekend’s two games. … Utes senior David Collette is shooting 64 percent from the field during conference play, the second-best percentage in the Pac-12. Collette scored a team-high 15 points in a loss to UCLA on Jan. 11.