Runnin’ Utes basketball: 3 things to know about Utah’s 88-61 win over Washington

Utah is 14-7 overall and 7-3 at the midway point of the Pac-12 schedule

The University of Utah men’s basketball team blew out Washington on Saturday night at the Huntsman Center, 86-61, to complete a weekend sweep of the Huskies and Washington State. Here are the takeaways.

Successfully attacking the 2-3 zone

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins played at Syracuse and was an assistant under Jim Boeheim for more than 20 years, so naturally Hopkins adopted Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone upon taking over in Seattle ahead of the 2017-18 season.

The general principles of that zone are steeped in wanting to get you on your heels and make you essentially stand around. Instead, you have to be willing to attack and probe the middle in an effort to find cracks.

It took just three possessions on Saturday night to understand that Utah was going to be up to the task against the 2-3.

On the first trip down the floor, Gabe Madsen received a pass just above the elbow, took a dribble into the teeth of the defense, and knocked down a 10-foot jumper. Two trips later, Marco Anthony hit a jumper just inside the elbow after finding some space, and that was it.

Utah was in control all night against the zone, but in fairness, Utes head coach Craig Smith didn’t sound at all concerned in the days leading up to the game. He pointed out that in three meetings with the Huskies last season that the 2-3 wasn’t the problem, but rather when they dropped back in man-to-man. That didn’t matter much either on Saturday.

Utah had 48 points in the paint. Branden Carlson had four second-half dunks, two of which came off dribble penetration against the zone, as part of a 25-point night on 10-for-17 shooting. After Washington dropped back into man early in the second half, Luka Tarlac strolled to the rim unimpeded for a dunk.

Collectively, the Utes executed at a high level, and when you’re executing at a high level against that zone, you’re going to end up with clean looks all over the place, whether they be at the rim or along the perimeter. For a team that has had its fair share of shooting woes this season, going 7-for-15 from 3-point range and shooting 51.5% from the floor are huge positives.

They got anything they wanted against a defense that is often hard to prepare for, and when Washington went away from that defense, it signified Utah was doing something right.

Luka Tarlac provides a spark

Any time Tarlac’s name comes up, Smith has been steadfast in his belief that the Serbian-born freshman will be a factor. Smith believes he has an elite feel for the game, a high IQ, and a skill set that allows him the versatility to be a matchup problem.

The issue has been that Tarlac has been hurt too much of the time, and hasn’t been able to get himself fully cranked up. January is coming to a close and finally, Tarlac appears as healthy as he’s been for most of this season.

Tarlac’s emergence against Washington came under interesting circumstances. At the 2:47 mark of the first half, after a horrid display of defensive rebounding, Smith, seemingly out of frustration, yanked Lazar Stefanovic and inserted Tarlac, who committed a foul within five seconds.

From there, nothing but positives to close the half.

After a steal in the frontcourt, Tarlac tried to finish the break off himself with a Eurostep in the lane, but ran into traffic and had the presence of mind to drop the ball off to a trailing Rollie Worster for a layup. A driving Tarlac layup, an aggressive defensive rebound near the end of the half that wound up as a Carlson dunk down the other end out of a halfcourt set. Utah was up eight when he entered the game and was up 14 at halftime.

Early in the second half, Tarlac did a nice job of attacking the zone with a baseline drive before offering a bounce pass to a cutting Carlson at the rim for a dunk.

Tarlac impacted this game in nine minutes of action, but how or where he might fit in moving forward is up for some discussion. When Tarlac is in there, Utah is probably going pretty big, which is not something Smith has done a ton.

Furthermore, if you’re attempting to slot Tarlac in on the wing, it’s getting crowded between Marco Anthony, Stefanovic getting the first call off the bench, Wil Exacte beginning to see more run, and Bostyn Holt, albeit in a limited capacity.

If he believes Tarlac needs a role, how Smith manages minutes allocation at that spot would turn into a key storyline coming down the stretch, especially if Utah re-enters the NCAA Tournament bubble discussion at some point.

Will this end up being a season-altering weekend?

Smith used part of his opening postgame statement to note that he and his staff challenged their guys last week off the two losses in Los Angeles. I asked Smith to expand on that.

“I just felt like we weren’t playing as connected as we needed to be, so challenging guys to make the right play, and if you can’t make the right play, then that’s a problem,” Smith said. “Making the right play, making the right pass, understanding what we need to do when teams are throwing different things at us.”

Smith went on to say that he leaned on his veterans, and by veterans, he means guys that have four years in, a group at Utah that includes Marco Anthony, Branden Carlson, Jaxon Brenchley, and Eli Ballstaedt. Brenchley and Ballstaedt apparently said some powerful things in closed-door meetings during the week. Smith did not elaborate, and Carlson declined to share details when asked about what Brenchley said to his teammates during the week.

I wrote this after the Washington State game on Thursday, but it’s not time to give up on this Utah team yet, especially after two consecutive offensive explosions, especially after the Utes got back to defending and rebounding, neither of which were present in three straight losses to Oregon, UCLA, and USC.

If Utah gets both games next weekend at Oregon State and Oregon, if the conversation begins veering back toward the bubble, we’re going to look back at this weekend’s sweep as the turning point.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.