LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Utah coach Larry Krystowiak walked alone through a corridor of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, chomping on a piece of fruit that probably tasted bitter but was not. He shook his head while looking at the ground about an hour after his credible team looked incredibly inept against Arizona’s defense.
Krystowiak looked up for a second, sighed and continued staring at the ground as he moved on with one hand on his hip. He had the look of a fighter who was knocked out with the first punch, no chance to respond. The problem for him and his team: They knew what hit them throughout Arizona’s 71-39 victory in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal game.
They saw Arizona pull back its fist — with the Pac-12’s best defense — and they could not move.
“Well, we got punched in the mouth by a really good basketball team, and we saw Arizona, I think at their finest,” Krystowiak told the media. “Hopefully, for all of our sakes and the league’s strength, and so forth, that they represent our league (well in the NCAA tournament).
“I think they can go really far. As I told the players, that’s where we want to be. We’re a long way from that caliber of team.”
Utah seemed to be not that far away from Arizona entering the game. The Utes took Arizona to overtime in Salt Lake City only 22 days ago. Utah was down by only two points at Tucson with only 5 minutes remaining only a month-and-a-half ago.
“We know we can compete with those guys,” Utah guard Brandon Taylor told me Wednesday after the Utes beat Washington in a first round game. “We can compete with the top teams in the country. We can compete with them. It’s really good for us to play them twice already to know what we can do.”
What Taylor did not take into account is this is Arizona’s best defensive team in the program’s history.
Utah’s three leading scorers Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright shot a combined 1 of 16 from the field. What’s more incredible than the 6.3 percent shooting from the field was the lack of shots they managed to attempt. They made 18 of 27 field goals the day before against Washington.
When Utah beat California last Wednesday at Haas Pavilion — a place where Arizona lost as the No. 1 team — Loveridge tried 17 field goals on his own.
In a chess match between the league’s two top coaches this season — Arizona’s Sean Miller and Krystowiak — Miller called checkmate before Krystowiak could move the king. Miller and his staff noticed that Utah burned the Wildcats and blew a couple of opportunities off the pick-and-roll three weeks ago at Salt Lake City.
It will be Arizona-Colorado in semis of Pac-12 tourney. Last we saw of this matchup, Cats hit 22 of 26 shots in 2nd half of 88-61 win.
Krystowiak mentioned to the media that Miller scouted the pick-and-roll so well that “we just didn’t have anything in our playbook that really could counter that kind of emphasis they were placing on defense.”
The key was limiting Wright, a dangerous player who ignites Utah in all phases. He made only 1 of 8 attempts and was 0 of 3 from three-point range with Nick Johnson, T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York rotating on him.
“I know they were looking to take advantage of Wright coming off ball screens today,” Miller said. “That was our emphasis. Our defense was just collectively better. It’s not one person. It’s the group.
“As the game wore on, I think we took advantage of our freshness.”
"They were much more physical than they were. They took pride on guarding us. They took the life out of us." – Utah Coach K on Arizona.
The wild card with Arizona’s sustained energy level: Gabe York’s progressing defense. His ability on that end takes pressure off Miller to play Johnson and McConnell more than they need. Only a year ago, when York was not playing as a freshman and hearing the rumors about him potentially transferring, he approached Miller and assured his coach that his defense would improve.
If not, he understood the consequences.
“It’s a mindset,” York said about his defense, which was effective enough to tie Aaron Gordon for the team lead in steals (two) against Utah. “I have it in my mind that you’re not better than me and your offense will not outplay my defense.
“Even now, the new rules are meant for the offensive player to be better. You can’t use your hands. You have to be better than the guy with the ball. It came to a point of pride where I’m not going to let the coaches not let me play again. I looked at it as they won’t take something from me. They won’t stop me from playing. I told coach I’m not going to let it happen again.”
Only Johnson and McConnell were on the Pac-12’s All-Defensive team. Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson deserved recognition.
“We’re great defenders and I think that was kind of crazy that we were not on that,” Hollis-Jefferson said.
Utah set new Pac-12 tourney lows for fewest points (39), field goals (12) and field goal percentage (25.5). Final: UA 71, Utah 39.
What matters most: As a team, the Wildcats are achieving defensive numbers we’ve not seen before.
This can be the first season since 1950-51 that an opponent will not eclipse 80 points against the Wildcats. Against Utah today, the defensive results went to the extreme. Utah had only 22 points with 10 minutes remaining in regulation. The Utes had 34 at halftime against the Huskies on Wednesday.
“We know that when our offense is clicking and our defense is clicking we can do that,” Johnson said when asked about when he saw the score on the scoreboard. “We knew it was going to be a battle … or we thought it was going to be a battle coming into this game because Utah has played us well the last few seasons.
“They have great players. We were really locked in on defense. I think it started with our defense. We were locked in. It felt good. T.J. sparked a few runs. Aaron sparked a few runs. You look up and see the score and you’re like, ‘That can’t be the score.’ … It felt good.”