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Utah Runnin’ Utes’ offense left much to be desired in 64-46 loss at USC

Utah had just four second-half field goals and shot 27.9% for the game.

Utah's Alfonso Plummer, center, drives to the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Southern California, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Before diving into a full dissection of the University of Utah’s offensive struggles as part of a 64-46 loss at USC Saturday afternoon, it should be noted that the Trojans have cobbled together an elite defense.

Entering Saturday, USC ranked second in the Pac-12 and ninth nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.3%). Opponents are shooting just 31.5% from 3-point range, and KenPom.com ranks the Trojans 18th nationally in adjusted defense. Furthermore, USC is long, versatile at most spots and employs at least one high-level rim protector in 7-foot freshman sensation Evan Mobley.

Yes, USC’s defense will swallow up its share of opponents this winter, much like it did in the second half vs. the Utes, but by any measurement, the Utes’ offensive showing at the Galen Center was poor.

Utah shot 17 for 61 (27.9%) from the floor and 3 for 22 (13.6%) from deep on the day. In the second half, the Utes managed just four field field goals, while going through long, profound scoring droughts.

“Some of it is concepts, I think film is going to help us when we look at some missed opportunities, and I think our guys need to gain some confidence,” 10th-year Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We’re going to put some time in on offense, and we better not forget how important defense is, but we need to make some strides as we head into conference-play, getting a lot more functional than we have been.”

Added sophomore point guard Rylan Jones: “We’re on the right path. We were getting good looks, we just missed them. We have to find our rhythm on offense, get in a groove, see a couple go in, and I think that will kick off some wins.”

Utah’s second half featured field-goal droughts of 6:36, 6:44 and finally, 4:32 to close the game. In the middle of it all, Krystkowiak’s defense was mostly up to task for a long while, but it doesn’t matter how good the defense is if the ball isn’t going in the hole.

Krystkowiak and Jones both contended postgame that Utah got plenty of good, open looks around the perimeter, they just didn’t go in. That point is valid, but one may argue that a Power Five team shooting 3 for 22 from 3-point range with what are classified as good, open looks leads to more problems, if not another set of questions.

Utah had 26 points in the paint, but only four of them came after halftime. When the Utes did opt to probe the lane vs. USC’s defense in the second half, they were met by Mobley, or his 6-foot-10 brother, Isaiah, or 6-foot-9 Chevez Goodwin.

If things broke down at the rim, the ball would get moved back outside, but the offense too many times became stagnant, capped by a perimeter shot. Whether or not the look was clean, stalling at the rim and having to move back outside on a short shot clock is not ideal.

Utah is already a methodical, often-slow halfcourt operation that doesn’t do much running on the break. Having things break down halfway or late in the shot clock does not help.

“We come off from playing two really good defensive teams, UCLA and USC, let’s not bury our heads in the sand because we had a hard time scoring,” Krystkowiak said. “They are two elite rebounding and physical-type teams. There’s no consolation prize, but we’re in a one-possession game with UCLA and in my mind, the same thing goes here. We were really competitive on the road and we’ll have to clean it up this week. It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”

For what it’s worth, Utah’s next opponent on Wednesday, Oregon State, is another good defensive team, ranking fourth in the Pac-12 and 45th nationally in field-goal percentage defense at 39%, although KenPom has the Beavers ranked just 154th in adjusted defense.

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