After a rough start to Pac-12 play, the Runnin’ Utes seemed to figure things out in January, winning five straight games to finish off the month. Utah climbed its way back up the conference rankings and inserted itself back into the Pac-12 title conversation.
But then this last weekend happened.
The Utes first lost in improbable fashion in Corvallis on Thursday when senior point guard Brandon Taylor fouled Stephen Thompson Jr.’s half-court desperation heave in the final second of the game, allowing the Beavers to defend their home court. Three days later, the loss seemed to carry over into a 76-66 defeat at Oregon, where Duck forward Dillon Brooks had his way with the Ute defense, going for 30 points, six rebounds and nine assists.
This weekend has to leave Ute fans bewildered, wondering just exactly what kind of team they are rooting for here. This Oregon road trip was supposed to be an opportunity for Utah to get a step closer to the Pac-12 peak. If the Utes had taken care of business against the Beavers and Ducks, there’s a very good chance they’d be looking down at the rest of conference with just seven games left before the Pac-12 tournament.
So what’s been the difference between the team that won five consecutive, impressive wins over Cal and Washington and the team during its five conference losses? To be honest, not all that much — just worse shooting.
During Utah’s five-game win streak prior to the weekend, the Utes shot 49.4 percent from the floor, including 35.4 percent from downtown. Compare this to their field-goal and three-point percentages in their five Pac-12 losses and the numbers dip to 44 and 33.2 percent, respectively.
What does this say about this year’s version of the Runnin’ Utes? Well, not a lot, but it does show they can be extremely inconsistent. Some games, the Utes seemingly can’t miss from three-point range, while in others, they struggle to find the bottom of the net.
To further illustrate that point, look no further than the numbers of senior starters Taylor and Jordan Loveridge. Taylor’s last five scouring outputs have been 3, 15, 15, 3 and 0. Loveridge’s totals for the last five games are 16, 9, 8, 3 and 10.
There’s been no consistent veteran leadership from the guys who were supposed to be providing it. Instead, the Utes have been relying on sophomore Jakob Poeltl. In their defense, there are worse players to lean on than Poeltl, a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award given to the nation’s top center, but the Austrian can’t do it alone.
Win or lose, Poeltl typically puts in his fair share of work. Much improved from a season ago, there’s not much opposing teams can do to stop the future NBA first-round draft pick. Utah’s five conference losses are typically due to inconsistencies in scoring from the rest of the unit, namely the senior leaders.
Utah is not a bad team, not even close. There is talent up and down this roster and the Utes have shown at times they can be contenders in this conference when they are clicking — “when they are clicking” being the key words in that sentence.
Is this team good enough to make a run and win the Pac-12 tournament? Absolutely. Are the Utes good enough to return to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season? Sure, why not?
But the unfortunate truth surrounding this Utah program is that inconsistent teams do not win championships, and Utah is exactly that.