Recent years have been a renaissance of basketball in the West. Arizona is a Final Four contender again. UCLA is back in the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time since reaching three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08. And Gonzaga may have its best team of the Mark Few era.
One program that has lagged behind, though, is Utah.
The Utes sunk to their deepest depths in the first season under Larry Krystkowiak, going 6-25 overall. Entering this season, Utah has reached the Sweet 16 only once since the height of the Rick Majerus era 1997-98.
To keep advancing, Utah will have perhaps its toughest test of the season.
The Utes are one of the country’s best defensive teams, but handling Duke’s multi-faceted attack. Utah has defeated Wichita State and BYU this season and lost hard-fought games to Arizona and Kansas.
With Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow, Duke may be the toughest hill to climb on a stage where Utah hasn’t been in a decade.
Other Sweet 16 Previews
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 1 Duke
Region: South (Houston)
Time: Friday, approx. 9:45 p.m. ET
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill
Line: Duke by 5
Matchup to Watch: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor vs. Utah’s Jakob Poeltl
Jahlil Okafor is one of the most prominent names in college basketball. His post game has few equals. Could one of them be Utah’s Jakob Poeltl? He’s an under-the-radar draft prospect and not one of the top names on his own team. But he’s also a seven-footer who is quickly becoming an intriguing prospect. Utah ranks fourth nationally in 2-point defense with opponents shooting 41.2 percent.
Tournament Surprise: Justise Winslow’s stock
Justise Winslow been solid to outstanding for most of the season, but the headlines at Duke have more often been Okafor or the Tyus Jones/Quinn Cook backcourt duo. Winslow, though, has been the highlight-reel guy in the tournament with his all-around play. He’s scored 19 points in two tournament games, but he’s had 12 total assists and 23 total rebounds in two games. He threw in four steals and three blocks against San Diego State.
Utah will win if...
Delon Wright can make life difficult for Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils have had trouble at times this season shutting down attacking guards. If Wright, one of the most well-rounded and unselfish guards in the country, can run the show against Duke, the Utes will have a chance to pull the upset.
Duke will win if...
The Blue Devils’ stars are stars. This is the time for Okafor, Winslow, Jones and Cook to shine — and they need to because Duke doesn’t have a ton of depth.
Athlon Staff Predictions
David Fox: Duke 71-64
Braden Gall: Duke 67-64
Mitch Light: Duke 80-70
Jake Rose: Duke 74-70