After a promising, positive week of practice due to the bye-week, Utah hoped to build on that momentum, combined with a three-game win-streak that was snapped Saturday at the Jon M. Hunstsman Center by a surging Colorado State team.
Throughout the bye week, practice was focused primarily on defense which, ironically, the Utes point to as the culprit in Saturday's loss. With no glaring statistical standouts to point to, such as the usual turnovers, the Utes are left without a defined scapegoat.
While head coach Jim Boylen would undoubtedly always be game to see fewer turnovers. the Utes' 13 Saturday weren't entirely out of line versus Colorado State's 10. Point guards Josh Watkins and Chris Kupets have worked extremely hard to cut down in that category, and clean up their game. Both have done that, and the decline in the primary ball handlers' turnovers is a direct correlation to more marks in the win column. With that progress, Will Clyburn's uncharacteristic six turnovers had to add to the Utes' frustration on the day.
As Watkins and Kupets combined for just three turnovers, marking huge progress from the beginning of the season, it's no wonder the Utes are feeling the frustration of this loss. Seemingly, once one problem is resolved, another pops in its place; such is NCAA basketball. Another marked area of progress is in the assists category, where Utah finished with 15 on the night which is four more than their conference average, and five more than their overall average. 15 is also the Utes' highest assist total in conference play, and is good for their second-best effort in assists all season.
"15 assists on 28 baskets is good for us," Boylen said. The Utes' 15 assists is three shy of the game goal Boylen set for his team pre-game, and has yet to reach that mark this season.
"I'm disappointed in losing this game, I'm not discouraged about this team," said head coach Jim Boylen of his team's six-point defeat to Colorado State, who moves into sole possession of second place in the Mountain West Conference with this win (and BYU loss, who is now in a tie for first with San Diego State).
Utah leads the Mountain West Conference in defensive rebounds and is tied for fourth in the offensive rebounding category.Though the Utes average 37 rebounds per game, and are second on the MWC in rebounding margin at +5.5, they were just barely out-rebounded Saturday 37-36, and CSU grabbed 10 offensive rebounds to Utah's nine. Boylen commented that, though the rebounding statistics were nearly even, the timing, especially with regard to offensive rebounding, was central.
"[CSU] had two offensive rebounds under three minutes that really hurt us. To me, that's the game," explained Boylen. "[CSU] onlly had 10 for the game, but I thought those two were huge."
Colorado State's Andy Ogide was the game's leading scorer with 28 points on 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc, and 10-17 from the field. Ogide also snatched 10 rebounds, all defensive, and in general was too athletic for the Utes' big men David Foster and Jason Washburn. Boylen noted that his gameplan called for one-on-one defense on Ogide, but did not expect the Rams' big man to step back and knock down three pointers. Prior to Saturday's game, Ogide had attempted seven three pointers, and made three. In conference play, Ogide had only attempted two three-pointers, making both.
"I thought we got ourselves in a hole early. Obviously Ogide's threes, for a guy who's taken seven all year; I thought that was a factor in that first half," Boylen summarized. "Our game plan was to play him one on one, and not give up threes. He made three of their eight, so you have to give him credit. But that's a difficult pill to swallow for me."
The Utes, however held the other CSU players to below their season averages, but to no avail.
Will Clyburn got off to a slow start with only three points in the first half, but got hot, adding 16 points in the second half, and grabbed 10 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season. Freshman J.J. O'Brien also had a quiet first half, but finished with 11 points, as did Josh Watkins/ Center Jason Washburn had a bigger night offensively, chipping in nine points, but was below his season average with three rebounds.
Despite Watkins' 11 points, he went just 5-17 (29%) from the field on a night where shots just weren't falling as they had been recently. Having the most looks on the team, a low percentage shooting night by Watkins seems to be a key though the guard has shot nearly 44 percent from the field in conference play, and been a key offensive contributor. Taking away Watkins' performance, the Utes shot a combined 23-43 (53%) from the field.
While shots didn't fall as often for the Utes, overall, the looks were there and Utah enjoyed fairly wide open shots. In the final 4:40 seconds of the first half, the Utes hit a dry shooting patch, missing four shots and two free throws after re-taking a one point lead at the 4:41 mark of the opening half. Though most of the looks were open, Utah would fail to score again for over three minutes in an all too familiar pattern of mental lapses. At the same time, Utah broke down on defense, allowing CSU to outscore them 9-4 in that same stretch, despite pulling down five rebounds in that stretch.
"I thought we had some great looks that didn't go down," Boylen explained. "They had some that did. I also thought that we had some plays at the rim that you know, you hope you get to the line on, and we didn't. We didn't finish those plays, or get fouled, so it's difficult."
Boylen summarized the loss in two ways, stating that his team had little margin for error, and in that case, couldn't allow for offensive or defensive lapses, turnovers, or an inability to make the hustle plays. The Utes had also counted on free throw attempts early in the season as a regular part of their game plan, something which hasn't panned out for them recently. Saturday, Utah attempted just 13 free throws versus a previous team goal of 25. With so few attempts, percentages aren't playing a huge factor in losses, but in games like Saturday's versus Colorado State where the contest was a statistcal draw, the Utes' 53.8% free throw shooting did make a difference, as they missed six on the day which proved to be the final margin of defeat.
Utah shot 28-60 (46.7%) from the field, 5-18 (27.8%) versus CSU's 28-62 (45.2%) from the field and 8-20 (40%) from three and 10-14 (71.4%) from the line.
"I can summarize this loss up this way. They were tougher than us, and they were more veteran than us," summarized Boylen.
Jason Washburn added, "After the week we had working on defense, to lose that way, hurts."
"This week, everybody had their heart into it. Everybody was practicing hard, and playing together," echoed Clyburn. "So to come out and play like this, really hurts."
Colorado State improves to 15-6 and 5-2 in conference play with this win. With the loss, Utah drops to 10-11 and 3-4 in conference play, and will travel to UNLV on February 2 for their next contest.