SALT LAKE CITY — Players and coaches said all the right things through the early months of the season as outsiders questioned the Utah basketball team.
The 9-3 record was decent, but it didn’t include a signature win and losses against UNLV, Butler and BYU didn’t help the resume.
The team believed in itself but the product on the court suggested otherwise as the offense was inconsistent, ranking No. 104 in the nation in turnovers per game (12.6) and No. 180 in rebounds per game (36.23).
The Utes, however, swept their Pac-12-opening road series against Oregon and Oregon State as Utah (11-3) played its best ball of the season.
“It’s been great,” forward Tyler Rawson said. “Just the confidence we have now coming over the weekend and into our practices have been huge. Where we were freezing up against BYU, Butler and UNLV, we were executing at Oregon and Oregon State. So there’s a direct correlation there.”
Utah will try to sustain that this week as No. 14 Arizona and No. 4 Arizona State travel to Salt Lake City. The Utes held Oregon to a season-low 56 points and Oregon State’s 64 points were the second-fewest by the Beavers this season.
“We shocked ourselves a little bit at Oregon with our defense,” guard Justin Bibbins said. “We always knew we could play defense, but we struggled with that at times. But collectively in Oregon we did a great job with both teams and I think we’re finally starting to figure out our niche and what we want to do as a team, how we want to play.”
One of the biggest differences has been the development of Bibbins, who averaged 18.5 points and knocked down nine 3-pointers against the Oregon schools. He averaged just 13 in the first 11 games of the season. The Long Beach State transfer needed time to get acclimated to all the intricacies of what coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted, but said he had a slow start to his junior season, also.
“Just confidence, that’s all it is,” Bibbins said. “I’m shooting shots I always knew I could make. But it’s a little easier once they finally start falling for me. Biggest thing for me is I know and believe I can make shots that I’m shooting. They’re going in this time.”
The senior has grown into a leadership role on a roster that lost four of its top six scorers, including first-round pick Kyle Kuzma, from last season. That’s a fine line to walk as a newcomer to the program, even on a roster that’s had significant turnover. Krystkowiak pulled him to the side two months ago and told Bibbins to be more assertive.
“There was no question in my mind that Justin was going to get to this point,” Krystkowiak said. “But I don’t think it’s a natural thing, even if he’s Gen. Patton and off the top of the charts when it came to leadership, I don’t think it’s proper to come into a program and start (bossing everyone). Part of it’s you have to get a lay of the land and earn the respect of your teammates.”
Getting a read on this Utah team was difficult during the nonconference season. There were encouraging and horrific stretches. Sedrick Barefield and Dave Collette were expected to lead the offense, but they’ve been inconsistent. Collette has struggled as a rebounder despite his 6-foot-10 frame — he’s averaging 5.0 per game and had just two against Oregon State.
The injury bug has also struck. The status of Donnie Tillman (foot) and Chris Seeley (gall bladder surgery) is still unknown after they didn’t play last weekend.
But everything came together during the Oregon trip. The league will learn if it was a fluke this week against Utah’s first two ranked opponents of the season.
“I spoke to the team about (how) each one of these conference games is about a mile and a half of a marathon,” Krystkowiak said. “And we’re not interested in winning the opening sprint and being one of those guys that poops out at the end. It’s a grind.
“We played a really good half of basketball at Oregon in the second half, maybe our best half of the year where all of the things we talked about being important came together at one time.”