Utes in review: Opening sequence of Pac-12 basketball play raised their stock, even after a tough loss at Arizona

Donnie Tillman’s 43-point showing in two games is a healthy development for Utah’s offense.

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) Utah forward Donnie Tillman (3) drives against Arizona guard Dylan Smith during the first half in an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz.

Tucson, Ariz. • Utah’s performance during the opening week of the Pac-12 basketball schedule may have said as much about the weakened state of the conference as about the Utes themselves.

They like their outlook, either way.

By beating Arizona State and taking Arizona into overtime on the road, Utah looked far more competitive in the Pac-12 than any evidence from November or December would have suggested. The view of the Utes would be even more favorable if they had finished better in regulation or overtime at Arizona, but they looked like a different team.

Sophomore forward Donnie Tillman spoke of the “hunger” that emerged in Arizona, saying, “We’ve just got a little more confidence and aggression to us.”

Senior guard Parker Van Dyke wished his go-ahead 3-point attempt with four seconds left in overtime Saturday had stayed in the basket, instead of rimming out in an eventual 84-81 loss. Even so, Van Dyke said of his team, “I feel much better. This is a huge confidence-booster. I think Arizona State and Arizona are probably the two hardest places to play in the conference. We’ve just proven that we can play with anyone and beat anyone in this conference.”

The Utes have more to prove, beginning Thursday vs. Washington at the Huntsman Center. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index now projects 7.7 league wins for Utah in the 18-game schedule, up from 6.1 wins last week.

Three takeaways

• This is what Utah’s offense is supposed to look like. The Utes still have issues with sloppy turnovers, but they were dynamic offensively, once they recovered from a 28-11 deficit at ASU.

Utah’s 27-of-51 shooting from 3-point range in two games is not sustainable. Donnie Tillman’s emergence as a complementary scorer to Sedrick Barefield is a good sign, though. The Utes have moved up to No. 29 in adjusted offensive efficiency in the kenpom.com analytics.

• Utah (7-7) apparently will have to outscore opponents. Even while nearly sweeping the Arizona schools, the Utes regressed defensively to No. 282 among 353 Division I teams. Utah’s offense was expected to be better than its defense, but this differential is stunning.

The Utes did a better job shutting off Arizona's penetration in the second half, but gave up a series of 3-pointers and couldn't keep the Wildcats off the free-throw line.

• Utah was picked eighth in the preseason poll and went into January ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in various analytics and certainly outperformed that status on the trip. How high will the Utes finish? Somewhere in the middle is the best answer. A scheduling rotation that gives Utah only one game each vs. Stanford and California is a limiting factor.

Player of the week

Barefield. If Utah had beaten Arizona, the senior guard likely would have become the Pac-12 player of the week. The Utes will always wonder what would have happened if Barefield hadn't fouled out in regulation at Arizona. Opposing coaches raved about Barefield, who totaled 50 points on 18-of-32 shooting.

“Not that we expect him to have performances like this all the time, but he's certainly capable,” said Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Runner-up: Tillman. His previous career scoring high was 20 points. He delivered 22 and 21 on the trip with 13-of-21 shooting, a breakthrough his team needed.

Play of the week

Almost any of Barefield’s shots during a run when he scored 12 straight Utah points to hold off ASU’s rally could qualify. The most memorable play was a scoop shot in the lane.

Looking ahead

Washington and Washington State come to the Huntsman Center this week after the Huskies beat WSU 85-67 in a Pac-12 opener Saturday in Seattle. Washington (10-4) trailed early in the second half before pulling away behind guard David Crisp’s 23 points. WSU (7-7) played without leading scorer Robert Franks, due to a hip injury. The Cougars will play Thursday at Colorado.

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