SALT LAKE CITY
Thirteen voters in the Associated Press poll did not rank Utah in the Top 25 last week — 13 dummies who must’ve spent the last month watching reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” while the Utes were marching through the Pac-12’s Tipoff-After-Bedtime series.
From Jan. 27 to Feb. 27, the Utes rolled over Cal, USC, UCLA and Washington, and on Saturday shut out Arizona 6-0 in the last 2:51. If you take it as far back as Dec. 19, when the Utes beat Duke, it is a body of work that is superior to that of, say, Arizona, which entered Saturday’s game ranked No. 9.
Two of the savants on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program Saturday picked Arizona to beat Utah, at the Huntsman Center. It made you wonder if either had seen Arizona or Utah play, or if they thought Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Salim Stoudamire were still playing for the Wildcats.
But because the Utes haven’t won anything of consequence since the 1998 Final Four, they remain in the show-me-again (and again) stage of college hoops.
On Saturday, the sold-out Huntsman Center (15,508) might as well have been capital of the Show Me State of college basketball. It wasn’t just that the Utes won 70-64, it was that they were a) due and b) have built a better basketball team than the Wildcats.
This is the year the Utes have moved toward since entering the Pac-12. This is a ’tweener season at Arizona.
“We’re not quite good enough to be there for 40 minutes,” UA coach Sean Miller said. The last time he could accurately use that quote was March 2012.
The Wildcats weren’t lost in the mountains on this 0-2 trip to Colorado and Utah, but they were again exposed. Starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s cumulative box score was a cover-your-eyes type: two points, four assists, five turnovers.
The UA’s interior defense against CU’s Josh Scott and Utah’s Jakob Poeltl was so lacking that Miller started freshman Chance Comanche in place of fifth-year senior Ryan Anderson in the second half.
Comanche had made two baskets since Jan. 16.
But something had to give because Scott and Poeltl took Arizona apart inside, combining to make 16 of 27 shots, score 39 points and grab 16 rebounds.
After a 10-minute cooling-off period and his radio interview, Miller said “there’s a reason we’re not the same” as in previous years. One of those reasons, Hollis-Jefferson, was standing no more than 10 yards from Miller at the time. Hollis-Jefferson now plays for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
The postscript to this Arizona season, whether it ends in the Sweet 16 or a week earlier, is that few teams can sustain the personnel losses absorbed by Arizona, whether it be injured Ray Smith or a one-and-done talent like Stanley Johnson, although it should be noted Johnson shot 3 for 19 when the Wildcats beat Utah at the Huntsman Center last year, outscoring the Utes 6-0 in the final 1:57.
How’s that for history repeating itself in a weird sort of way?
Last year Arizona had players who stepped forward in times of crisis. This year, Utah has that element.
“We’re playing for a bye in Vegas,” said UA guard Kadeem Allen, which might be the most telling perspective on this Arizona season. Avoiding the Wednesday play-in round at the Pac-12 Tournament is now a tangible goal.
The Utes essentially won Saturday because they beat the Wildcats to a loose ball, a long-rebound, 50/50 play, with the Utes leading 66-64. Brandon Taylor then made the play of the game, swishing a three-pointer after Gabe York slipped and fell.
That loose ball recovery is often happenstance, but Miller had a different description.
“I think that has happened (to us) throughout the year,” he said. “Usually when you’re not quite good enough, it’s those single plays.”
To its credit, Utah didn’t treat a victory over Arizona like it had done anything more than move into second place in the Pac-12. The celebration was dignified; only one knucklehead catapulted from the Huntsman Center student section onto the court.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak did walk across the court to slap hands with a number of fans in the high-priced seats, but thereafter he limited his joy to sucking on a Life Saver for 20 or 30 seconds in the press room, delaying his remarks, as the feeling of breaking an 0-9 streak to Arizona sunk in.
“I’ve been here when no one was at the game,” Miller said, beginning a tribute to the Utes, who were 6-25 in their first Pac-12 season, 2011-12, a year he cleared the bench with players like Max Wiepking in a 26-point blowout win. “Sometimes as a coach, you have to admire things happening and I really admire Utah.”
If nothing else, Arizona can enjoy the feeling that it will play no more true road games this season, and that a first or second-round NCAA Tournament game wouldn’t likely be as difficult as playing the Utes in Salt Lake City.
When the calendar flips to March this week, Arizona’s weekend in the Mountains will be forgotten. The real madness has yet to begin.