Rather than wait a week or more for their next game, the Arizona Wildcats are back on the court less than 48 hours later with a home matchup against the Utah Utes.
Utah (8-8, 1-5) is in last place in the Pac-12, is under a new head coach and one of its best players from a year ago—Pelle Larsson—is now with the UA.
To better understand Utah, we reached out to Philip Malugade of SB Nation sister site Block U. Here are his strong answers to our weak questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: After 11 seasons under the guidance of Larry Krystkowiak, Utah pulled the plug and brought in Craig Smith from Utah State. How is that change going so far, and what are the biggest differences between the coaches?
Philip Malugade: “I was definitely a fan of Coach K, but I, along with the majority of the fan base, definitely felt a change was needed. Craig Smith was certainly not the flashiest hire for the program. I, for one, was hoping for either Johnnie Bryant or Alex Jensen, who are both former Utes and I think would have been a great fit; but they both declined despite being interviewed. It’s been tough to judge Craig Smith so far because we began the season 5-0 and then had some tough injuries so we haven’t been able to see this team completely healthy at any time this season. Furthermore, we lost a number of players to the transfer portal (Timmy Allen, Pelle Larsson, Caleb Lohner and Rylan Jones).
“As far as their demeanor, Coach K was always really relaxed and you can definitely see some fire to Craig Smith’s personality. I love Craig Smith’s passion and energy and I think we can only judge Craig Smith this season on how much improvement we see from the team. There will be a lot of ups and downs this season but as long as we see some improvement and fight from the team we will be happy. Craig Smith needs time to recruit his players and instill his playing philosophy.”
The Utes have dropped four in a row, including being swept at home by the Washington schools last week. What isn’t working right now?
“Turnovers are absolutely killing us. Washington had 13 steals against us and we had 19 turnovers in that game. We blew a 14-point lead because of turnovers against Washington and turnovers were a big part of our losses against Oregon State and Oregon. We have to do a better job protecting the basketball if we are going to close out games. The last game against Washington State was tough because they started with some hot shooting in the first half and built a 10-point lead at the half. We became too overly reliant on 3-point shooting to get back into the game despite our poor shooting. We need to be more aggressive and drive to the basket to get to the free-throw line and get some easy baskets.”
Big man Branden Carlson is out due to appendicitis. How does that change Utah’s game plan, and who picks up the slack?
“I would expect Craig Smith to stick with Lahat Thioune in place of Carlson. Lahat looked good early against Washington State and just needs to be more aggressive in the paint. It’s going to take a total team effort from everyone with or without Carlson. We especially need David Jenkins Jr. to start consistently knocking down some shots along with contributions from Both Gach and Marco Anthony. There won’t be one particular person because it’s clear that everyone needs to start playing more consistently.”
What would you say is Utah’s biggest strength, and what is its biggest flaw?
“Utah’s biggest strength so far has been its ability to keep fighting regardless of the score. Craig Smith continues to be passionate and it’s clear is doing everything he can to build that into the DNA of this team. Our biggest flaw is our inability to protect the basketball. Turnovers have hurt us in so many games and we have to do a better job protecting the basketball if we are going to win games this season.”
Can Utah pull off what would be a huge upset and win at McKale Center for the first time since 1986? Give us a score prediction.
“I would love nothing more than to predict Utah to go into the McKale Center and pull off a huge upset, but I just don’t see it happening. I think Utah will unfortunately get behind early but battle back to make it at least a reasonable margin. Arizona wins, 86-68.”