Utah’s best scorer, David Collette, sat on his team’s bench for 18 minutes Thursday night, beset by foul trouble, wishing for a second chance.
“I actually had it in my head that we’ll get them at home,” he said.
And then he was told Arizona won’t play at the Utes’ Huntsman Center this season.
He looked at a reporter and said, “We don’t play them at home?”
Arizona beat the Utes 66-56 because Thursday’s game was played at McKale Center. If a home-court advantage in college hoops is worth 10 points, and it probably is close to that, McKale was the difference.
“You’ve got to be able to go on the road and have a little dog in you,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
On Thursday, the Utes were more Chihuahua than Doberman.
“It’s nice to be home,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “A big thank you to the crowd.”
The home team won 60.7 percent of all college basketball conference basketball games last season. In the previous five years it was 59.8 percent.
It changes only infinitesimally. It was 61.7 percent from 2007-11, and 62.2 in the five-year period before that.
Yet Arizona won 89 percent of its McKale Center conference games the last five seasons (40-5) and if you go all the way back to Lute Olson’s glory days, it topped out at 98 percent from 1988-92 (and has never been below 69 percent in a five-year period, and that was the dreadful Kevin O’Neill period).
Utah couldn’t win at McKale because Arizona didn’t give the Utes a chance to win it.
The Wildcats didn’t force silly shots and didn’t commit silly fouls. That’s half of any game, isn’t it? The other team beating itself?
Utah, which produces 21 percent of its points from the foul line, made two free throws.
What’s more, the Utes missed 17 of 21 three-point shots – “we were settling for threes,” said Krystkowiak — and didn’t offer suitable defensive resistance when Arizona tossed the ball inside to Dusan Ristic, and couldn’t cope with Arizona’s size or rebounding position.
“I don’t think we were quite ready for how hard they came after us on rebounds,” said Collette.
That’s college basketball. You do a few bad things on the road and you get engulfed by the home crowd’s belief and the home team’s momentum.
The Utes are good. Maybe not Sweet 16 good, but in two months Utah could be the Pac-12’s fourth-place team, a step behind UCLA, Oregon and Arizona. Collette could start — would start — for any team in the league, but on Thursday his 6-for-7 shooting night was betrayed by four fouls, which were designed by Miller and his coaching staff.
“He’s a load,” said Miller. “We wanted to attack him, use our size against him and maybe get him in foul trouble. That did help us win.”
Utah last won at McKale Center in 1986. That was so long ago that Krystkowiak’s lead assistant, Tommy Connor, was Utah’s point guard in that 68-67 victory, a night when Arizona did not present the variables that Miller was able to deploy on Thursday.
In ’86, UA point guard Steve Kerr sat on the bench with a torn ACL in his knee. The Wildcats started Craig McMillan against Connor at the point, which was never McMillan’s position, and were forced to start true freshman Jud Buechler at the other guard spot.
That was Olson’s last “down” season until he retired, and it was probably the last time he went into a game at McKale without all of his guys in the right position.
Through 16 games, Miller has at last found the right position for his eight available players. The timing was perfect. Two weeks ago, with point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright idled by an ankle injury, it’s not certain Arizona could have beaten Utah, even at McKale Center.
On Thursday, Jackson-Cartwright had a nine-assist, zero-turnover game. You can’t beat that, although Miller insisted that PJC had four more assists that were not properly recorded into the final box score.
That’s how you beat an improving team like Utah. You get their top scorer in foul trouble, you out-tough the Utes inside, limit your mistakes and take full advantage of 14,302 fans, who, given the soft nonconference home schedule, haven’t had the opportunity to exercise their lungs at McKale Center since last March.
Besides, the Utes’ nonconference schedule is ranked No. 335 of 351 Division I teams by Kenpom.com, so it wasn’t much of a shocker for the Utes to shoot poorly, fall behind and play into Arizona’s trap.
This was all new to them.
Krystkowiak is too accomplished to let a loss at McKale eat him up inside. In two months, his team’s new parts, Collette and freshman shooting whiz Sedrick Barefield, are going to be a load for any team. The Utes have nice complementary pieces all over the roster, especially Kyle Kuzma and Devon Daniels. About the only thing Utah lacks is size, which is Arizona’s strength.
That and the league’s best home-court advantage.