As of right now, Utah is in my mind a borderline tournament team. In reality, their resume (thanks to an embarrassingly weak non-conference schedule) will probably keep them out. But in terms of talent and actual ability, they are right there with any of the various flawed teams currently on the bubble.
And that's pretty incredible.
It's hard to understate just how unfathomably bad the Utes were just two years ago. They were one of the worst teams in conference history, and only the typically strong home court advantage that altitude and travel creates kept them from an 0-18 run in conference. When 8 players transfer, another gets injured, and another is dismissed for rules violations, it's tough to win games.
But Larry Krystkowiak has rebuilt Utah's roster much more quickly than most anticipated, myself included. For that he should very strongly receiving Pac-12 coach of the year considerations. He only has one senior on the entire roster, and he gets minimal playing time. His 3 juniors include two JC transfers and another transfer from Southern Utah. There isn't a single recruit on his roster rated higher than 3 stars, JC or otherwise.
But his teams play smart basketball. They take good shots, and they play consistently tough, sound defense. Krystkowiak is wringing out maximum output from his players, and they will further Cal's misery if the Bears aren't ready.
Utah's rotation is pretty simple. Wright, Loveridge and Taylor will play almost the entire game, and the other 5 players will shuttle in and out of the lineup around them. Nominally Taylor is the point guard, but he's more of a jump shooter that will stretch the defense - Wright is the guy with the ball in his hands, creating for himself and for his teammates.
Loveridge is undersized but doesn't play like it, and his quickness could give forwards problems. On the bright side, Ricky Kreklow might be the perfect solution.
Onwas and Tucker roughly split time at the 3, but neither have a huge offensive impact. Tucker tends to get a bit more time on the court because he's a decent 3 point shooter, so Cal's wings will have to be aware and get out on him when necessary.
Bachynski is very much like a rougher version of his older brother - lots of rebounds, lots of blocks, but less a focal point of his team's offense in limited minutes. He brings a bit more offense than either Olsen or Lenz, and all three are pretty foul prone, a problem Krystkowiak solves by shuttling all three in and out at the 5.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Kenpom: Cal 71, Utah 70, 53% confidence
Another coin flip. Except, this game has become a coin flip because both teams are moving in opposite directions. Cal has stagnated after a hot Pac-12 start, while Utah has won five of seven, with one of those losses coming to Arizona in overtime.
It's worth noting that Utah has one of the strongest home/road splits in the Pac-12. The Utes have one solitary road win (over USC) and just two home losses (to Oregon and Arizona, both in overtime). Still, while the rap on the Utes is that they can't win away from Salt Lake City, it's worth noting that five of their road losses have been by single digits, and one in overtime. Utah has been really, really close to a road breakthrough.
Keys to the Game
Who can limit Delon Wright? Utah's rangy point guard is one of the most efficient offensive players in the conference. He doesn't miss shots, and he creates good looks for his teammates. Is there a player on the team willing and able to step up and slow him down? Tyrone Wallace seems the best equipped from a size stand point. I'd love to see a great defensive game from him.
Can Cal take advantage of the size deficit? Utah isn't a very big team. Typically their 4 is 6'6'' Jordan Loveridge. Loveridge is a solid rebounder for his size, but when Dallin Bachynski isn't on the floor Cal should have a HUGE advantage on the glass. On paper.
I don't anticipate Utah having any traction on the offensive glass (if they do, watch out), but can Cal make hay with offensive rebounds of their own? They haven't really been able to get 2nd chances in Pac-12 play, but it might need to happen tonight.
Run with the 4 guard lineup. Piggy-backing on Utah's lack of size - this is the perfect team for a 4 guard lineup. Utah will very rarely, if ever, play two true post players. If Ricky Kreklow can passably guard Jordan Loveridge, there is no reason why Cal can't spread the floor and load up on shooters. Kam's injury only heightens the need, and Cal's offense needs to find a spark somehow.
Play with pride and urgency. It's senior weekend, and an NCAA tournament spot is on the line. More than that, this team got embarrassed in the desert in two blowout losses. Do they have the drive to make up for those losses, secure their post-season fate, and leave Haas Pavilion on their own terms?