Utah has emerged as the Pac-12’s overachiever.
The Utes stumbled through November and December along with the rest of the men's basketball teams in the conference, including blowout losses against Kentucky and Nevada that sent them into Pac-12 play at 6-6.
Utah (11-8), which opened conference play with an upset win at Arizona State, has won four straight games to move into a tie for second place at 5-2 as it returns home to face Oregon (12-8, 3-4) at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Utes were pegged by many preseason pundits to finish in the bottom half of the conference, but are ahead of some of the favorites, including Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon as the Pac-12 schedule nears the midway mark.
“They are shooting 42 percent in conference on 3-pointers and playing with tremendous confidence,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “Shooting it well gives them a lot of energy. It will be a tough assignment no doubt.”
Senior guards Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke are shooting 41.6 and 40.7 percent for the season on 3-pointers, respectively. Freshman forward Both Gach is at 39.3 percent on 3-pointers with Donnie Tillman and Riley Battin both over 36 percent.
Utah leads the Pac-12 by shooting 38.2 percent on 3-pointers to rank 31st in the NCAA.
“We need to stop them in transition,” UO junior Victor Bailey said. “We know their guards can shoot it so we have to keep an eye on them and talk as a team.”
The only Pac-12 team that attempts more 3-pointers than Utah is Washington State, which was 4-for-6 behind the arc while taking a 39-35 halftime lead over Oregon on Sunday before going 2-for-11 in the second half as the Ducks pulled away for a 78-58 win.
“Coach was saying that Utah is similar to Washington State in terms of how they score their points,” Oregon senior forward Paul White said. “We have to have some of the same emphasis running people off the 3-point line and making them take contested twos."
Utah is coming off its first sweep at California and Stanford since it joined the Pac-12. The Utes began their current winning streak with home wins over Washington State and Colorado.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak has started nine different players this season and each of them are averaging at least 13 minutes per game.
“They mix and match pretty well and have good depth,” Altman said. “They have five or six guys shooting above 40 percent on 3-pointers in conference so it is not like it is just one or two guys.”
Oregon is in eighth place in the conference with seven of its final 11 games away from home.
Freshman Louis King is averaging 17.9 points per game while shooting 47.0 percent from the field, including 42.9 percent on 3-pointers, in conference games.
“He is hitting his stride and taking good shots,” Altman said. “We’ve got to run a few more things for him because his numbers are continually improving.”
Sophomore forward Kenny Wooten matched a career high with 20 points off the bench in the win over Washington State. Altman was noncommittal when asked if Wooten would return to the starting lineup against the Utes, who feature 7-foot junior post Jayce Johnson.
“Kenny has played well but he got two quick fouls against ASU and two quick fouls against Washington so I am worried about that,” the coach said.
Junior guard Payton Pritchard is averaging 9.9 points in conference games while shooting 30.3 percent from the field. He matched his season high with eight assists against WSU to move up to sixth in the conference with 4.7 per game.
Pritchard had a career-high six steals against the Cougars to push his total in the past four games to 14 and rank third in the conference with 1.7 per game.
“He has been struggling offensively and he knows that,” Altman said. “I think he made a conscious effort to get more deflections and steals. I am pleased with his increased defensive production.”