Utah Basketball got one of the bigger upsets of the season, knocking off top 5 Arizona. Here are some takeaways from the game on the Utes side.
On a night that featured a match-up of two top ten teams on ESPN, Utah managed to steal the spotlight of the college basketball world by pulling off one of the season’s most shocking upsets. The Utes, in their PAC-12 opener, throttled previously unbeaten and fourth-ranked Arizona.
Arizona is coming off one of the best weeks of anyone in college hoops. They feasted during Feast Week with wins over Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Creighton in consecutive days to win the Maui Invitational. They have one of the more exciting styles of play in college basketball, playing at one of the fastest paces in the land and featuring an elite big man duo in 6 ’11 Azuolas Tubelis and 7′ 0 Oumar Ballo. They also feature a group of guards in Courtney Ramey and Kerr Kriisa that are quick, experienced, and fantastic perimeter shooters.
None of that mattered on Thursday night in Utah as the Utes led the entire game and held advantages as great as 20 points. So how did Utah dominate this game as a team that was picked to finish towards the bottom of the conference? I investigated. Below are my main findings.
Utah beat Arizona at their own game in the first half
What Arizona does better than anyone in the country is playing fast and playing with a purpose. When I say that, it’s more than just running fast or relying heavily on the fast break, it’s about getting into your actions quickly and wasting no time getting plays set up in the half-court. Utah did that better than Arizona on Thursday night, especially in the first half.
The Utes played well in transition in the first half and turned Arizona turnovers into either layups or drawn fouls that brought easy points at the free throw line. Oftentimes, the strategy is to try to slow the tempo down against a team that plays that quickly. However, Utah plays a pretty fast offense themselves (right outside top 100 offensive paces per KenPom) and didn’t stray from their comfort zone.
Utes’ perimeter defense took Arizona guards off the scoreboard
The strength of the Arizona attack is the dominance of their big men. Ballo and Tubelis still played well, scoring 22 and 20 respectively, but what didn’t happen was the forward production opening easy looks for the guards. In many instances, dominant forwards can demand double teams and open up clearer three-point looks and force a defense to play inside than out. Arizona made teams pay that way in Maui, but Utah’s defensive effort helped hold Arizona to a putrid 4-28 (14%) effort from beyond the arc.
“We’ve done a really good job with that all year, and some of that is the teams we’ve played,” Utah Head Coach Craig Smith said after the game. “But we’ve done a really good job with understanding spacing and personnel.”
In the press conference, Smith also mentioned how his team fought through screens better and with more physicality, allowing defenders to not have to help as long in “plug situations and tag situations”.
The progress being made on that side of the floor has been tremendous for Utah as they now rank sixth in the country in opponent three-point percentage. Like Smith alluded to, they haven’t played a murderers row of great three-point shooters, so that stat could be a little skewed, but against Arizona they did display the physicality improvements that were made to keep teams from taking advantage of them on the perimeter.
Utes’ guards get into the paint at will
A quick thing to point out that I noticed in Utah’s 42-point first half was the ability that all of their guards had to get into the lane off the dribble. Arizona could not, for the life of them, contain dribble drives and keep the opposing ball handlers out of the paint. That’s how Utah built a lead that big early on.
Could it be some physical hangover from the Maui trip? Possibly. But the perimeter defense from Arizona was atrocious and Utah did whatever they wanted on that side of the floor.
6’4 guard Rollie Worster scored five buckets from two-point range, getting past defenders with ease and also generating nine assists from those drives. Reserve guard Lazar Stefanovic scored six of his eight points in the first half and recorded both of his assists in that half by blowing by defenders without a ton of resistance.
Branden Carlson helps Utes pull away
Utah big man Branden Carlson was clearly the player of the game for Utah. He scored 22 points, made five of his nine three-pointers and became a match-up nightmare for Arizona.
There’s a lot to unpack with his performance and him scoring 15 of those 22 in the second half helped fight off the inevitable Arizona push late in the game (the Wildcats cut it to single digits on multiple occasions in the final 20-minute frame). But what stood out to me, is how Coach Smith used him depending on the match-up.
Carlson is a 7’0 big man who is shooting 44% from three. He did a fantastic job of spreading the floor and moving Ballo away from the paint as much as possible when Arizona had Ballo guarding him in man-to-man defense. Ballo still blocked three shots for the game, but Carlson’s presence helped move him out of where he is dominant at times. On one of Carlson’s threes, he slipped out past the perimeter on a drive and knocked down a three as Ballo was slow on the closeout. Ballo is a great defender, but three-point closeouts are not his specialty.
In the second half, Carlson saw more defensive attention from Arizona’s smaller forward, 6 ‘5 Pelle Larsson. Larsson guarding Carlson. From there, the much taller Carlson went to work, posting up Larsson and scoring late buckets from a much more advantageous match-up.
Utah pulled off the shocker of the night and it was well-earned. Yes, Arizona was sluggish defensively and maybe it was a result of this being their first true road game or maybe as a result of jet lag after coming back from Maui. Whatever the reason, on Thursday night, Utah took care of business and displayed a good defensive blueprint on how to beat Arizona.
Smith coached a great game, Carlson became a difference maker and maybe this became a game where Utah starts figuring some things out and becomes a surprise team in the PAC-12. That last one is TBD and we’ll find out more when they get deeper in their conference schedule but they certainly looked like a good defensive team to me.
For Arizona, I’m not sounding the alarm. They are still, in my opinion, one of the best 10 teams in college basketball. The perimeter defense needs improvement, but they’re still fine.