Utah will wear throwback uniforms for Thursday night's basketball game vs. Oregon, with junior Jayce Johnson performing as a traditional center.
That's the usual role for Johnson, in a era when a 7-foot post player has an old-school job description. As Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak often says, “There's no question the big man is being phased out of the college game.”
These factors have conspired to make back-to-the basket centers such as Johnson almost obsolete: Players' athletic ability, coaches' 3-point shooting emphasis and, in Krystkowiak's view, the way officials allow inside defenders to play physically
Johnson has an offensive role for the Utes, although his execution of it may make him Utah’s most frustrating player to watch. That’s a compliment to Johnson’s hard-working nature, a trait that frequently goes unrewarded when he misses shot attempts near the hoop.
Johnson had more success than usual last week, when he averaged 8.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in Utah’s first road sweep of Stanford and California. The Utes outscored Cal by 23 points during Johnson’s 23 minutes on the court, evidence of an impact that Krystkowiak values.
“He's the easiest guy in the world for all of us to be cheering for,” Krystkowiak said. “He may not be dazzling people right now with his offense, and we'd like to see those shots go in, but he's really doing a hell of a job on the defensive end, rebounding and being a presence at the rim and he's playing with a lot of energy. … If you respect the game and you're focusing on those things, the offense will eventually come.”
The best endorsement of Johnson’s work may have come in the last three minutes of the first half. He went to the bench and Cal outscored Utah’s small lineup 11-3, coming within 46-42 (the Utes eventually won 82-64). So Krystkowiak is likely to keep giving Johnson the 23 minutes per game that he’s playing in the Pac-12, with Novak Topalovic filling in for him.
Johnson is averaging 7.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in conference games. Those numbers represent improvement from November and December, when Johnson looked rusty after missing four weeks with a broken foot sustained in the early phase of preseason practice. Even now, the short shots he misses are frustrating to fans, coaches and himself, but he tries to keep them from affecting his defense.
“I know that I can do something on the defensive end to make a difference,” he said last week. “Yeah, I missed a shot and yeah, I let my team down at the moment, but I can't think about that. … Even though I wasn't finishing some of the shots that I got [vs. Stanford], I made a difference on the defensive end. That's one thing I try to do, no matter what.”
The Utes made 20 of 35 attempts from 3-point range in the first three halves of the trip, but their 2-of-10 showing in the second half at Cal reminded Krystkowiak that they can't totally rely on those shots. That's where Johnson comes into play, whether he's receiving post feeds or dropoffs from driving teammates.
He’s sometimes guilty of forcing shots in traffic or rushing himself in a one-on-one opportunity. Johnson is conscious of getting lower, staying on balance and not fading away from the basket. And when gets the ball inside, he’s trying to “slow down, take a deep breath, let the offense play out and do my thing.”
His thing is becoming less vital throughout college basketball, but the Utes still need it.
OREGON AT UTAH
At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Oregon (12-8, 3-4 Pac-12); Utah 11-8, 5-2 (Pac-12)
Series history: Oregon leads, 20-10.
Last meeting: Oregon 68, Utah 66 (2018)
About the Ducks: Oregon lost 66-56 at home to Utah in the teams' only regular-season meeting of 2017-18, but beat the Utes 68-66 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament. … Louis King (17.9) and Paul White (14.4) have increased their scoring production markedly in conference play. … Oregon opponents are shooting 30.2 percent from 3-point range, where Utah has thrived lately. … Senior guard Payton Pritchard ranks No. 8 in the country in free-throw shooting (91.5 percent).
About the Utes: Utah has won four straight games; a five-game streak would match the Utes' longest run of the past three seasons. … The Utes have had three or more double-figures scorers in each of their 11 wins. … Utah has lost its last three home games vs. Oregon and is 2-13 overall against the Ducks in the Pac-12 era, including 0-4 in the conference tournament.Oregon rallied for a win in Las Vegas last March. … The Utes will host Oregon State on Saturday (3 p.m.); the Beavers play Thursday at Colorado.