Thursday, January 23, 2014

Utah's Road Woes: What We've Got Here is a Failure to Concentrate

It has been said that winning on the road in Division I NCAA basketball is one of the hardest things to do in sports.  The Wall Street Journal had an article on this a few years back.  It speculated several reasons for college teams having trouble winning on the road: crazy fans close to the court, difficult travel schedules, unfamiliar sight-lines, home-cooking referees, and inexperienced players.

I never liked any of these excuses -- basketball is basketball.  The basket is the same height, the ball is the same weight, and the floor is the same size.  And yet good teams lose to inferior teams on the road all the time.  UCLA is probably better than Utah, yet Utah beat the Bruins last week.  Utah is probably better than Washington State, yet the Cougars took it to the Utes.  I expect a different outcome in both return games when the roles are reversed.  All of these factors probably make it more difficult to play on the road because it makes it more difficult to maintain a high level of concentration.  For me, the reason teams struggle on the road is that it is more difficult to maintain a high level of concentration on the road than it is at home.

Utah has only won one conference road game since joining the PAC-12, a 74-65 win over the Washington Huskies last season.  In that game, Utah shot 60% from the field and pretty much dominated a pretty decent squad.  What I remember from that game was a high level of concentration from the Utes and few mental mistakes.  In all of Utah's close road losses this season, including tonight's four point loss to Arizona State, Utah made several mental mistakes that cost them 6-10 points over the course of those games.  For example, in tonight's game, Utah dropped two uncontested rebounds out of bounds.  One of the drops happened right before the half that permitted ASU to score going into the half.  ASU used that momentum to pull ahead of Utah early in the second half.  In another instance, ASU threw the ball away and it was going out of bounds.  Instead of letting the ball go out of bounds, a Utah player unsuccessfully tried to save it to a teammate.  ASU retained possession of the ball.  These may seem like insignificant plays and they don't even register on the official stat sheet.  But if you make 6-8 of those mistakes during the course of a game, and the other teams scores about half of the time, then you are giving up 6-8 points that you would not otherwise be giving up.  If Utah gives up 6-8 fewer points in its road games, it would be 18-1 and 6-1 in conference instead of 14-5 and 3-4.  This may seem simplistic, but I truly believe that until Utah learns how to minimize these mental lapses, it will continue to struggle on the road.

Utah is a good team.  It is a better team now than it was at this point last season.  But it is not yet a great team.  When you are building a program from the ground up like Coach Krystko is doing, your team goes through stages.  First your team has to learn how to play hard, and you have to start recruiting more talented players.  Utah has done that.  Then you have to develop team chemistry and learn how to win games.  Utah has great chemistry, and it knows how to win games.  But this Utah team has failed to maintain a high level of concentration for 40 minutes of basketball on the road.  It has had stretches where it plays outstanding.  But in all of its road losses, Utah has gone through stretches where it drops rebounds, makes costly turnovers, takes bad shots, and loses concentration on defense.  And until Utah learns to minimize these types of mistakes, it will continue to lose road games that it is capable of winning.

It may be a frustrating process to watch.  But every team goes through it.  Some overcome and become great teams.  Some don't and regress.  From what I have seen from this coaching staff and from these kids, I expect Utah to evolve into an excellent team that can win games on the road.  But it is far from a foregone conclusion.

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