Former WAC rivals reunite when Mountain West Conference Tournament champion Fresno State tangles with Utah. The Bulldogs earned their first NCAA bid since 2001. Utah is back in the Big Dance for a second consecutive season after finishing second to Oregon in the Pac-12.
Utah leads the all-time series with Fresno State 10-4 and won the most recent game, 90-77, in 2013. The Bulldogs' last win over Utah came in 2011 with an 82-52 rout during Larry Krystkowiak's debut season in Salt Lake City.
No. 14 Fresno State Bulldogs (25-9) vs. No. 3 Utah Utes (26-8)
When: 7:15 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Pepsi Center (Denver)
Line: Utah -8
Keys for Fresno State
Harris needs to find his shot
When Marvelle Harris gets going on offense, the Bulldogs are a tough team to stop. Fresno State is 18-2 this season when the senior guard shoots 40 percent or better from the field, but is just 2-5 when he shoots 30 percent or worse. Harris averages 20.6 points per game to lead the Bulldogs.
Pressure Utah's guards
Utah's backcourt isn't as formidable as it was with Delon Wright at the controls last season. The Ute guards can get flustered under pressure and cough up turnovers or launch bad shots over multiple possessions. Fresno State needs to make Utah bleed the shot clock and work for good looks at the basket to keep the Utes from overwhelming the Bulldogs on the perimeter and in the paint.
Keys for Utah
Feed Poeltl often
Jakob Poeltl, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, will create lots of matchup problems for the undersized Bulldogs. The sophomore center is an efficient scorer around the basket, a dominant rebounder and an effective passer out of the post. Poeltl is averaging 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds this season and leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (.656).
Take care of the ball
Fresno State averages 8.2 steals per game, ranking 16th among Division I teams in that category. That isn't good news for Utah, which yields 12.3 turnovers per game. The Utes tend to play sloppy at times and it can disrupt offensive rhythm for long stretches. Utah must avoid piling up early turnovers or it could quickly get mired in a 40-minute dogfight.
Mountain West teams are just 1-14 as double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament and the odds aren't favorable for Fresno State to improve on that mark. Utah's defense can be suffocating and containing Poeltl is an insurmountable chore for most opponents. Fresno State lost two close games to Oregon and Arizona earlier this season and won't find it any easier to hang with the Utes. Utah has reached the Sweet 16 three straight times following a conference tournament title game loss and will be on track to extend that streak to four.
Prediction: Utah 78, Fresno State 69
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of PepsiCenter.com)