No. 10 Utes on the rise as Pac-12 set to start
Dec. 29, 2014
PHOENIX (AP) — Before the start of the season, the Pac-12 was predicted to be Arizona and a bunch of equally talented teams jockeying for position behind the Wildcats.
Heading into the conference season, Arizona is still clearly the conference's deepest, most talented team despite a road loss to UNLV in its final nonconference game.
The rest of the Pac-12 has lived up to the prognostications as well, with one exception: Utah.
Despite playing seven games without forward Jordan Loveridge, the Utes have been the clear No. 2 in the Pac-12 behind Arizona behind high-scoring guard Delon Wright and a stifling defense.
Wright averages 16.4 points and Utah (9-2) is top-25 nationally in scoring defense and field-goal percentage against, not to mention the Pac-12 leader in rebounding margin.
"I think we're one of the better defensive teams in the nation and for sure one of the better in our league," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
Utah has played a difficult schedule and picked up some solid wins, beating then-No. 8 Wichita State, BYU and UNLV. The Utes' losses were both on the road against ranked teams: No. 16 San Diego State and No. 10. Kansas.
The strong start has moved Utah up to No. 10 in The Associated Press poll, its first top-10 ranking since finishing the 1998-99 season at No. 6.
The Utes face Carroll on Tuesday before opening Pac-12 play at home against Southern California on Friday.
"I've been pleased with our preparation, where we are nationally in a couple categories and the way we've played," Krystkowiak said. "There's far more good things than bad things, but we'll keep sharpening the saw."
A look around the Pac-12 as league play gets ready to begin:
The Wildcats (12-1) lost to UNLV in their last nonconference game, which could end up helping them in the long run.
Arizona won its first 12 games, but was far from perfect, occasionally getting off to slow starts and making some games tougher than needed due to poor perimeter shooting or from the free-throw line.
The loss to UNLV could be a wake-up call for the Wildcats and, with an 11-day stretch of nothing but practice, coach Sean Miller is sure to sharpen their focus.
That could spell trouble for the rest of the teams in the Pac-12 with a team this talented.
Washington had been right there with Utah among teams separating themselves from the pack, rising up to No. 13 after being picked to finish sixth in the conference.
The Huskies fell back toward the rest of the Pac-12 on Sunday, when they lost to Stony Brook at home. The loss dropped Washington (11-1) to No. 22 in the latest poll, but it may have been a hiccup; the Huskies appear to be talented enough to remain in the upper tier of the Pac-12.
Colorado's mediocre run through the non-conference schedule would certainly count as a surprise. Picked to finish third in the Pac-12, the Buffaloes (7-5) have played some head-scratching games, including a loss to Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic and a road loss to Wyoming in which they scored 33 points.
California's loss to Cal State Bakersfield ranks up there with the Stony Brook loss by Washington as the most unexpected through the nonconference season. Arizona State's triple-overtime home loss to Lehigh was a bit of a surprise, too.
Stanley Johnson arrived at Arizona with plenty of hype and has mostly lived up to it.
Even surrounded by talented players, the athletic forward has stood out, leading the Wildcats in scoring at 14.5 points per game and rebounds at 6.8. He may leave for the NBA after this season, but it will likely be a memorable one.
Utah's Jakob Poeltl also has made an immediate impact, nearly averaging a double-double, and USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin has been dynamic on a team that's been inconsistent. Oregon's Dillon Brooks is averaging 14.4 points per game on the conference's highest-scoring team.
UCLA was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 and was somewhat respectable for the first 10 games of the season, the only losses to Oklahoma and North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The past few games, it's hard to figure out where the Bruins (8-5) stand.
After losing by 13 to Gonzaga, UCLA got steamrolled by Kentucky, watching helplessly as the top-ranked Wildcats scored the game's first 24 points on the way to an 83-44 win. The Bruins followed that up by scoring 17 first-half points in a 56-50 loss to Alabama on Sunday.