The Runnin’ Utes return to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals for the second year in a row, but this time around, they are hoping for a much better result. After falling to Oregon on a last-second shot in 2015, Utah is looking to redeem itself against Cal on Friday night to advance to the finals for the first time since joining the conference.
So, who has the edge heading into Friday night’s matchup? In preparation, I broke down the two teams by positions.
PG: Utah’s Brandon Taylor vs. Cal’s Tyrone Wallace
I don’t feel right trying to compare these two players. Taylor is a (generous) 5-foot-10 but is also an unquestioned leader for the Utes, while Wallace stands at 6-foot-5 and was the returning leading scorer for this Cal squad from 2015. Wallace leads the Golden Bears in assists with 4.6 per game but isn’t your prototypical floor general. He fills up the stat sheet and is always a threat, and while we don’t know who Taylor will be guarding for much of the game, Wallace is the smallest player in Cal’s starting lineup. Again, he’s 6-foot-5.
Taylor is coming off a game where he scored eight points, but the senior has come up big for the Utes down the stretch, including his NBA-range three-point bomb that sealed the victory over USC in the quarterfinals. Taylor, though he is known as one of the Pac-12’s toughest defenders, will undoubtedly struggle to defend Wallace, who has a knack for putting the ball in the hoop. If Taylor ends up squaring up against Wallace, expect the Cal senior to score often.
SG: Utah’s Lorenzo Bonam vs. Cal’s Jabari Bird
This is a tricky matchup. Bird, who was a former McDonald’s All-American in high school, has had an up-and-down career as a Golden Bear. He’s averaging 10 points per game, but he can get hot at any moment. Earlier against Oregon this year he had 24 points, including a 5-for-8 effort from downtown. In the next game against Oregon State, he continued the hot streak by torching the Beavers for 23 points on 4-of-8 shooting from deep.
But much like Bird, Bonam is a stick of dynamite for the Utes, owning the potential to score 20-plus points in any contest. This was evident in Utah’s win over USC, when Bonam came out of the gate to score the team’s first 10 points. He finished the game perfect from the field, and his dynamic playmaking ability can be tough to stop for any defender.
Despite potentially three NBA lottery picks playing in this game, this might be the most intriguing matchup, with both players having the possibility of having a big game.
SF: Utah’s Jordan Loveridge vs. Cal’s Jaylen Brown
Unfortunately for Utah, this might be one of the hardest matchups the Utes have to try and figure out. While Loveridge has been the most consistent shooter for Utah and, at times, the only Ute able to find the bottom of the net, Brown is one of the most talented players in the country. The freshman forward had his choice of schools as the fourth-best recruit, according to ESPN, coming out of high school, but he chose to attend Cal, where he’s excelled.
After working out some freshman pains, Brown currently leads the Golden Bears in scoring with 15.1 points per game. Much like his teammate Wallace, Brown can stuff the stat sheet. With nearly a seven-foot reach, Brown is able to use his size and athleticism to overpower opposing defenders. Unfortunately for Utah, Loveridge will not be able to match said athleticism, and it will be difficult for the Utah native to completely shut down the potential top-three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
PF: Utah’s Kyle Kuzma vs. Cal’s Ivan Rabb
Before Utah’s Thursday night win over USC, this would have been a matchup in Cal’s favor. Rabb was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, holding offers from Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky. Instead, he joined Cal, and the freshman forward is playing his best basketball for the Golden Bears. In their win over Oregon State on Thursday, Rabb finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, both career-highs.
Luckily for the Utes, so is Kuzma. The sophomore forward tied his career-high on Thursday with 23 points on a blistering 11-of-12 shooting performance. With Jakob Poeltl demanding so much attention in the post, Kuzma has taken advantage by being in the right place at the right time, and that will likely continue against Cal.
Kuzma does stand two inches shorter than Rabb, and with the way the latter is playing, the Flint, Mich. native may struggle at times to defend the Cal forward. But as I mentioned earlier, the Golden Bears will eventually have to pick their poison by either letting Poeltl go to work one-on-one, or double-teaming him, leaving the opportunity for Kuzma to have another big game.
C: Utah’s Jakob Poeltl vs. Cal’s Kingsley Okoroh
In many of Utah’s games this season, Poeltl has been the biggest player on the floor. Standing at seven-feet tall and 248 pounds, there are not many centers in the country who can match his natural gifts.
But Cal center Okoroh is actually BIGGER than the Austrian center, standing at 7-foot-1 and 252 pounds. It’s clear Poeltl’s size will not intimidate Okoroh, but Poeltl’s skill is an entirely different monster.
We all know Poeltl moves extremely well for his size, but really, what can’t he do that you wouldn’t want in a center? He’s improved his post game, passes out of double teams like a point guard and has learned how to use his strength and length to score easy lay-ins. He may not always lead the team in points, but Poeltl is the sole reason Utah has won the amount of games it has.
It’ll be interesting to see if Cal will try to square up Okoroh one-on-one with Poeltl, considering he has the size to stop him. Either way, Poeltl has proven time and time again this season that no matter what is in way, he can adjust. While some of the other matchups may go in Cal’s favor or are up in the air, there is no doubt that this is the most overwhelming match up of the game.