By Guest Columnist Alex Keller
The American Indian tribe known as the Utes, which is where the state of Utah gets its name, dominated the southern part of the Rocky Mountain Range up until the American colonization of the west. The only thing stopping the Utes from controlling more territory to the south was the presence of their ally, the Jicarilla Apache, that ruled over the greater part of Arizona. Not wanting to start a war with their greatest, and more powerful ally, the Utes never attacked Arizona, allowing the Jicarilla to take and hunt on their land as much as they pleased.
Something amazing happened in the American West this year though. No longer are the men to the south far superior the Utes. On the last day of February in Salt Lake City, Chief Delon Wright will lead his Utes into battle for control of the Pacific Athletic Conference against the men from Arizona.
I am not talking about an actual battle between two American Indian tribes. There is going to be a fight however, it is just taking place on the court rather than the battlefield.
On Feb. 28, the University of Utah (20-4,11-2 PAC-12) hosts the University of Arizona (23-3, 11-2) in a game that could decide the fate of the PAC-12. This is the first chance in recent memory that the Wildcats crown could be taken. And what most people do not realize is how how realistic that chance is.
Utah is very good, but get no publicity. It seems like every Monday when the top 25 polls are released, I have said to myself, “Utah is STILL all the way up there?” That is exactly why I have jumped on the Ute bandwagon this year.
To exemplify how little publicity it gets, here are some numbers. They are currently ranked ninth in the Associated Press Poll. They do not have a loss to a team outside the Rating Power Index (RPI) top 50. They are tied with Arizona for the PAC-12 lead. Lastly, the team is led by the best overall point guard in the nation, Delon Wright.
Most would never say Delon Wright is the best point guard in college basketball. In fact, the casual fan does not even know his name. Wright is not flashy, does not put up great scoring numbers relative to the usually named suspects for best point guard like D’Angelo Russell or Jerian Grant and does not play for a high profile team (even though Utah should be high-profile by now). What Wright does, however, is everything that Utah needs to win. He leads his team with 14.1 points and 5.4 assists per game, and is second, despite his position, in rebounds with 4.7 per game.
What separates Wright from other point guards is his efficiency and his defense. He may only score 14 points a game, but he is shooting over 50 percent from the floor and has an almost 3:1 turnover to assist ratio, numbers better than both Jerian Grant and D’Angelo Russell. These numbers are a major reason the Utes have the seventh-best field goal percentage – 49.5 percent – in the nation.
On the other end of the floor, Wright can shut down any opposing guard, and some smaller forwards. He averages 2.2 steals per game, good for fourth among power conference players. Thanks to Wright, Utah only gives up 55.6 points per game, with the highest total of 72 coming against Ball State in their season opener.
In conference play, when the opposition does not break 60, the Utes are 11-0, winning each game by double digits. When opponents score over 60, the Utes are 1-2.
To defeat Arizona, Utah needs to control the pace. As proven from the previous statistic, teams cannot win against Utah if they have to grind for points.
Arizona does present a difficult matchup for the Utes, because the Wildcats are very good at playing a slow-paced, efficient game. That being said, Arizona relies on runs with more up-and-down play to spur its offense when it goes cold. In their first meeting, Arizona runs led to a 69-51 thumping of Utah in Tucson. If Utah can limit Arizona runs when its offense comes to a standstill, Utah will be in great shape to pull what would be an upset in the eyes of many, and take control of the PAC-12.
Prediction: The Utes can finally make their case for the most powerful in the west with a 64-59 win. Utah, however, loses at Oregon and is forced to grudgingly share the PAC-12 crown with their former oppressor, Arizona.
Alex Keller is a diehard DMV sports fan straight out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His hobbies include geography, consuming various cheese flavored snacks and questioning the decisions made by others. He dislikes irrationality and his greatest pet peeve is feet. If you want to know more, follow him on twitter @AGKe11er