Armed with a slew of youthful pieces, the University of Utah men’s basketball team played poorly on the road last season.
The Utes were 0-9 in Pac-12 road games in 2019-20, losing those nine games by an average of 16.2 points per contest. Of those nine losses, only three of them wound up being single-digit losses. The other six were double-digit blowouts, the most-extreme example being a 39-point loss at Colorado in the Utes’ conference road opener.
Utah boarded a Los Angeles-bound plane early Wednesday evening in anticipation of walking into an opposing Pac-12 building for the first time this season. The Utes will play UCLA on New Year’s Eve (5 p.m., Fox Sports 1) and USC on Saturday afternoon, but these games, not to mention the rest of the league slate, will not feature typical road games.
There will be no fans at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, nor will there be any fans at USC’s Galen Center due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so any type of road atmosphere or advantage that may have swallowed the Utes up last season is not going to be a factor.
Utah junior forward Mikael Jantunen made an interesting observation on Tuesday morning. Without fans, what are usually true road games could instead feel like something of a neutral-site atmosphere.
“Last year was not good on the road, but we’re going to do a lot better this year,” said Jantunen, who is expected to play with a protective mask after undergoing recent surgery for a broken nose he suffered earlier this month. “We’re playing at their home gym, but there’s no fans, so if you go on a run, there’s no fans behind you. It’s easier to cut a run, it’s easier to cut a lead, so I think these are going to be close games. We have to stay poised and finish them out on the road.”
The aforementioned 39-point loss in Boulder last season represents one of the clearest illustrations of Utah’s Pac-12 road struggles a year ago.
In front of a lively, late-afternoon crowd of 8,017 at the CU Events Center, the Buffaloes took a 14-2 lead into the first media timeout against a Utes starting five consisting of three sophomores, a freshman point guard in Rylan Jones, and a redshirt freshman big man in Lahat Thioune. Things got no better that afternoon, only uglier as Utah trailed by 22 at halftime against a Colorado team that wound up fading down the stretch last season, but still would have easily made the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled due to the early, mysterious days of COVID-19.
Utah is still on the young side, the third-youngest team in the Pac-12, according to KenPom.com to be exact, but they’re certainly older than a year ago. The starting lineup is likely to consist of Jones, classmate Branden Carlson, junior Timmy Allen, senior Alfonso Plummer and either Jantunen or junior Riley Battin.
Fans present or not, hard lessons learned last season could very well benefit this group, which is off to a 4-1 start, but has only been legitimately tested once, an 82-64 loss at BYU on Dec. 12.
“I just think there’s going to be a lot more parity,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It happened in the NBA Bubble, where some 7-seeds were competitive with a 2-seed because the 2-seed didn’t have their home court for four out of seven games, and I do think that will come into play. It’s a different environment for coaches, players, all of us. You’re used to having a lot of fans and without that, it probably takes a little bit from the home team.”
UTAH vs. UCLA
At Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tip-off » 5 p.m.
TV » Fox Sports 1 (Alex Faust, play-by-play; Dave Miller, analyst)
Radio » ESPN700 AM
Records » Utah 4-1 (1-0 Pac-12); UCLA 5-2 (1-0 Pac-12)
Series » UCLA leads, 12-10
About Utah » The Utes will have had 13 days between games after beating the University of Idaho, 79-41, on Dec. 18. A Dec. 22 game at Arizona State was postponed after a positive test days prior triggered contact-tracing protocols. … Junior wing Timmy Allen is 31 points shy of becoming the 40th player in program history to record 1,000 in a career. Allen would be the 21st Ute to get to 1,000 as a junior. … Junior forward Mikael Jantunen is expected to play against the Bruins after missing the Idaho game with a broken nose, for which he will sport a protective mask. … Utah is 2-5 at Pauley Pavilion since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The most-recent trip to Pauley was last season, a 73-57 loss to the Bruins on Super Bowl Sunday.
About UCLA » The Bruins have had a similar long layoff to Utah, having not played since a neutral-court loss to then-No. 20 Ohio State on Dec. 19. … UCLA is 4-0 at Pauley Pavilion, with all four wins coming over an eight-day stretch earlier this month. Its most-recent home win was a 69-60 decision over Marquette. … The Bruins are 4-0 this season when holding their opponent to under 70 points. UCLA was 18-1 last season when holding an opponent to under 70, the one loss coming to USC, 54-52, in the regular-season finale. … Redshirt sophomore Tyger Campbell leads the Pac-12 in assists at 6.9 per game.