How to watch: ESPN2, 6 PM
The Huskies are going to look to rebound after a tough loss against the Arizona Wildcats, as they fell 77-72 at home last Saturday. They now have the tough task of trying to pick up a road split--at the least-- on the road against the mountain schools, and they start that trip tonight against the Utah Utes. Much like the Wildcats before, the Utes are a tough matchup for the Huskies, largely because of their front court. But before we break down some of the keys to the game, let's first take a quick look at how Larry Krystkowiak's squad has fared so far this season.
Utah at a glance: Overall record: 17-7, Conference record: 6-5, 5th, RPI: 16 AP, rank: NR
The Utes' up-and-down season has continued during conference play. After winning four straight games, including sweeping the Washington schools, the Utes looked poised to make their push back up the conference ladder. However, they hit a speed bump on the Oregon road trip, dropping both games. Like the Huskies, they are looking to bounce back tonight, and they may be pretty desperate for a win, considering that a loss would extend their losing streak to three. Despite the losses this weekend, Utah's RPI improved to 16. Despite the up-and-down season, the Utes have defended their home court well once again this season, as their lone home loss has come at the hands of the league-leading Oregon Ducks.
Top Storyline: Jakob Poeltl and the Huskies switching defense
In the team's first two matchups, Poeltl's 29 points and 10 rebounds ultimately put the Utes over the top. Poeltl and the Utes' coaching staff were able to exploit the Huskies' ultra-aggressive switching defense. They did this by running ball screens on either wing; once Poetl rolled to the hoop, the guard with the ball quickly swung the ball to a guard or wing at the top of the key, who then quickly threw the ball in to Poeltl. The sophomore seven-footer also took advantage of the switching defense by quickly flashing to the ball after setting a down screen. Often he caught the Huskies off guard, more concerned with the player flashing to the wing than with accounting for Poetl, and he capitalized. To their credit, the Huskies have seemed to adjust a bit, trying to keep within the paint more since that game.
More importantly than switching, the Huskies need to make sure that they can keep their big men out of foul trouble. Noah Dickerson played just eight minutes Saturday against Arizona before fouling out. To be fair, Dickerson has been hobbled with an ankle injury over the last two and half weeks, and it showed Saturday. Still, Dickerson, along with Malik Dime and Marquese Chriss, will have to stay out of foul trouble if the Huskies are going to have a chance to pull the upset tonight.
One reason why Poeltl is such a tough matchup for every team is his much improved free-throw shooting. After shooting a porous 44 percent from the charity stripe last season, the big man has improved drastically this season, shooting 70.2 percent from the free-throw line. He hit 13 of his 16 attempts from the line against the Huskies in Seattle, and followed that stellar outing up with a 13 for 15 performance from the free-throw line two games later against Stanford. Poeltl is one of the most prolific big men in the country and it is due in large part to his stellar free-throw shooting.
Prediction: Remarkably, the Huskies have lost two games in a row only once this season, when they lost to Gonzaga and then to Texas in the Bahamas, all the way back in November. Unfortunately, I think the Huskies lose two in a row for a second time this season. I am torn by this prediction, mainly because it feels as though I have picked against the Huskies in nearly all of my previews lately. Unfortunately, I just do not think this is a good matchup for the Huskies. I'm not sure they will have an answer for either Jakob Poeltl or Kyle Kuzma--who posted a 10-point, 11-rebound performance against the Huskies the first time around--and I ultimately believe that their combination, as well as the home-court advantage, will be enough to put the Utes over the top. Final score: Utah 84, Washington 75