For awhile I was hung up on Larry Krystkowiak’s comments from media day in which he called “playing hard” a talent. Sure he’s right and maybe it was just a ton of humble coach speak, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like it. But I understood the crux of what he was saying as he doesn’t have an Aaron Gordon, Jordan Adams, Spencer Dinwiddie, or Jahii Carson on his roster.
What he had was another brand new roster and seven new players to integrate around Jordan Loveridge. Who’s a fine player, but perhaps not immediately NBA-bound like the aforementioned. The Pac is talented.
But it’s mid-December and we find ourselves staring at a Utah team with but a single loss and an impressive holding of home court against a pretty good BYU team. That solitary loss was to Boise State on the road and late in the contest. They haven’t played the hardest schedule to be certain (ok, they’ve played the 3rd easiest schedule) so it becomes somewhat difficult to define this team. Are they talented? Are they playing hard? Are they the benefactors of playing Evergreen State, Grand Canyon, and St. Katherine (coming 12/28 to Huntsman)?
So how might we quantify this? Or, perhaps more directly asked, what’s going on?
I want to examine whether the Utes are playing hard. That’s how their coach has said they’re going to win games and without watching every minute of Runnin’ Ute hoop, I don’t really know where to start. And this is perhaps the crux of my issue with Larry K’s comments. Saying your team is good at playing hard doesn’t really mean anything.
In an effort to quantify, however, my initial hypothesis was such that the Utes perhaps are limiting shots at the rim; more effectively playing their defense and not allowing easy shots. As it were, they’re allowing more shots at the rim this season but doing a better job of contesting those. Teams are shooting just 56.7% there against the Utes and that’s well below the 60.9% D-1 average. They hold teams to the 19th lowest eFG% in the nation suggesting indeed these Utes are playing hard on defense. They lead the country in 2pt FG%. But ultimately those are just niceties.
Offensively they’ve got the 8th highest eFG% (58.3%). They shoot 77.7% from the rim and Delon Wright has been fantastic. The guard is taking nearly 70% of his shots at the rim and is making a stupid 83% of those shots(compare that to Jordan Loveridge’s 32% shots at the rim which is a bit mystifying but he still seems to be getting his; handily leading the team in usage) and putting up a talented 16/7/6. He’s been a delightful back court, transfer surprise for K and seems to have really allowed Loveridge to thrive as the primary scoring option all over the court, not just on the blocks. Now I’d love to see Jordan taking fewer threes. He’s a thicky thick body taking 40.8% of his shots from distance and making 31.4% of them. A season ago he was jacking up just 27.7% and making 36.8% of them. I like the latter stats for sustainability reasons; but it’s hard to argue against a guy with a 118.7 ORtg on team with a top-10 eFG. The Utes are doing something right and Loveridge just won Utah’s first ever Pac-12 Player of the Week Award.
But lots is still up in the air. Those are lovely numbers I’ve cited and that’s really about all I’ve done. While Larry K is seemingly quick to say his team isn’t the most talented, I have no qualms in saying they’re more talented than the aforementioned Geoducks, Antelopes, and Fightin’ Firebirds.
Looming large is the first conference game when the Ducks of Oregon come to Huntsman (Thursday, 1/2). This will undoubtedly be the Utes’ first big test and telling of just how “hard” this team plays. Looking at things long term, I’ll be curious to see where this budding program takes its scheduling. First tests shouldn’t come in conference play.
But that’s where we are today: staring at a 9-1 Utes team that I haven’t quite revealed anything about. There’s nothing too shocking in the numbers besides that they’ve beaten up on some cupcakes (to jog your memory it’s the 348th most difficult). But there is no denying that the Utes are 9-1. And when that left column keeps moving, you start to believe its supposed to move.
Here’s to playing hard.