3 things to know about the Runnin’ Utes’ loss to Sam Houston

Utes lose first real test of the season as a lack of physicality rears its head.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Houston State Bearkats forward Tristan Ikpe (12) blocks Utah Utes forward Ben Carlson (1) as the University of Utah hosts Sam Houston in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

The University of Utah basketball team is 3-1 following a 65-55 loss to Sam Houston on Thursday night at the Huntsman Center. Here’s what you need to know about the game:

A lack of physicality

There are plenty of places to start with what went wrong in a 10-point loss to Sam Houston, but a lack of physicality has to be at the top of the list.

This offseason, Utah put an emphasis on fixing some of the physicality issues that plagued it in 2021. But in its first real test of the year, it didn’t look much better.

Sam Houston gobbled up 14 offensive rebounds and forced Utah into 16 turnovers. There were times when Utah’s ball handlers simply gave up possession because of their discomfort with the on-ball pressure.

It resulted in the Bearkats generating 16 more field goal attempts than Utah as they relentlessly created extra possessions. Even on a night where the Utes shot a better field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, it never felt like they were in control

“They were tougher to the ball,” head coach Craig Smith said. “There were various times we had the ball, and they just took it from us. Literally took it from us.”

There were in-game adjustments that Utah didn’t employ that could have helped out in some areas of the physicality disparity. To help on the offensive boards, Smith could have played a bigger frontcourt to mitigate some of Sam Houston’s size advantage. Front court mates Gavin Baxter and Ben Carlson only combined for 17 minutes.

That said, Sam Houston’s leading rebounder was guard Javion May, who is 6-foot-2. So Utah simply got beat in that department too.

“I probably should have played big-big a lot more to sort of neutralize that advantage,” Smith said. “But it’s just that they were quicker to the ball. ... We lacked a lot of physicality tonight as a team.”

Difficulty guarding the pick and roll

To some degree, this is what Sam Houston does. Bearkat guard Qua Grant, a Wichita State transfer, is known for using the pick and roll to get downhill and finish at the rim. He did it against Oklahoma earlier in the year.

That said, Utah still struggled mightily to keep him, and the rest of the guards, out of the paint. Grant routinely used the ball screen action to get to the rim, particularly late in the game. And if it wasn’t Grant finishing himself, he was distributing it to other shooters as the defense collapsed.

He finished with 22 points on 8-of -5 shooting. 10 of those shots came inside the paint. He also had four assists.

Overall, most of Sam Houston’s guards lived inside the paint as they got to the rim. 46 of the visitor’s 62 shots came from inside the arc. As Utah tried to climb back into it, they often gave up easy looks in the lane that extended Sam Houston’s lead. The Bearkats led for the final 38 minutes of the night.

“I thought our screen and role defense really hurt us late, I thought,” Smith said. “We have to do our job staying in front of the ball. That is where defense starts, right?”

Down the stretch, Branden Carlson was often on the other end of the screen and role. He couldn’t defend it as he got tired and Utah needs him to be a productive defender. He finished with 31 minutes.

“BC played a lot of minutes... I thought we wore down,” Smith said.

Marco Anthony returns

The lingering questions over the status of Utah’s best defensive player will be quelled for the moment. Marco Anthony made his season debut after missing the first three games with a heel injury.

Coming off the bench, he logged 19 minutes. Smith said Anthony wasn’t on a minutes restriction and was “full-go.”

As for his play on the floor, Anthony showed flashes of why Smith wanted him to return for another season at Utah. On a night where Utah couldn’t seem to stop dribble penetration, Anthony’s on-ball defense gave some brief stability. Of the players in the main rotation, only Mike Saunders Jr. had a higher defensive rating.

“He brings a lot of things to the table, physicality,” Smith said. “He brought a lot to the table in that respect.”

But the recurring problems that Anthony dealt with last year also didn’t seem to go away. His shot was still inconsistent, particularly from the free throw line. He finished 4-of-6 from the field, but 0-of-3 from the line.