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HONOLULU — If someone told you that a Utah player scored 35 points and the Utes shot 55 percent from the floor, you’d likely predict a Ute victory.
On Thursday, however, all predictions were out the door early on.
The University of Utah fell to the San Francisco Dons 89-86, despite sophomore Sedrick Barefield becoming the first Ute since 1997 to score at least 35 points in a game. Kyle Kuzma was injured on the Utes’ first shot of the game and sat out virtually the whole night after the Runnin’ Utes’ medical staff reported he had suffered a sprained ankle.
Any loss is painful, but this is likely to sting a bit more than usual. San Francisco is a high RPI team (215) and wouldn’t have done Utah any favors in NCAA Tournament discussions even had the Utes won.
Here are my instant observations from Utah’s loss to San Francisco:
Kuzma’s injury changes everything
When Kuzma went down with a sprained ankle early in the game, a jolt of panic likely shot through every Ute fan. Depending on the severity of the injury, Kuzma likely faces anywhere from a week to a month of recovery. The Ute medical staff has yet to release anything regarding the diagnosis, and until then, we will be left to guess on how long he’ll be out, but it’s likely Utah has lost the junior for the remainder of its stay in Hawaii.
Kuzma’s overall production can’t be replaced. He currently leads this team in points, rebounds and assists per game, and had already recorded six double-doubles through just nine games. Even more impressive regarding his stat lines was that his shooting had yet to catch up. He was making just 53 percent of his 2-point shots and 14 percent of his 3-point attempts.
On Thursday, Kuzma’s loss was most often felt on the glass. The Utes were outrebounded 29-25 by a San Francisco team far less athletic than they, and one that employed mostly a four-guard lineup. The Utes lack of discipline on the defensive glass led to eight crucial second-chance points. David Collette, who grabbed nine rebounds Saturday vs. Prairie View A&M, only managed three rebounds Thursday.
Utah struggles to stay connected defensively
San Francisco put on a 3-point clinic, going 16-of-28 from deep, a 57 percent clip. The ball, of course, still needs to be shot with skill, but shooting becomes a lot easier when you’re wide open, and the Dons were seemingly wide open all night.
The Utes suffered breakdown after breakdown guarding San Francisco, and upon review, it’s not really difficult to see why. Barefield repeatedly overplayed passing lanes, Devon Daniels overplayed ball handlers and got beat and Lorenzo Bonam was quite often lazy closing out on shooters early on. All this is something coaches call “staying connected,” and for Utah’s first game in Hawaii, even getting connected was a problem. Compounding errors, Utah’s bigs were often overmatched trying to guard their smaller counterparts on the perimeter, frequently getting beaten on dribble penetration, leaving them out of position to protect the paint and even more out of position to defensive rebound.
Difficulty defending the perimeter has affected Utah in all three of their losses. In defeat, Utah is allowing 49 percent shooting from three and nearly 10 3-point makes a game. The Utes need to get better defending the perimeter or conference play could result in carnage.
Barefield is a star
If there was any silver lining for the Utes in Hawaii Thursday, it was that one Ute was forced into the spotlight and fully delivered. Barefield was a one-man wrecking crew, scoring 35 points on 11-of-15 shooting, making five 3-pointers for the second game in a row. The sophomore became the second Ute since Keith Van Horn scored 40 points in 1997 to score 35 points in a game.
Barefield showcased an impressive ability to score at every level, mixing a variety of acrobatic layups and mid-range jump shots with his already potent 3-point jumper. In his first two games as a Ute, the Corona, California, native is shooting a remarkable 68 percent from the field, including 66 percent from three, while averaging 26.5 points and 2.5 assists.
The competition hasn’t been especially stiff, however. Neither of the two opponents Barefield has faced approach the level of overall talent found in the Pac-12, but he has a chance to be special. His game certainly requires improvement, as he tends to be overaggressive jumping passing lanes on defense, but the potential for stardom is something that tends to come along only once in a great while, and Barefield has that potential.
What’s next for the Runnin’ Utes
Thursday’s loss will force a late Friday matchup with Hawaii. Kuzma will almost certainly not be available, and Utah shouldn’t rush him back with the advent of Pac-12 play just over a week away. The Utes will have Saturday off before playing again Sunday in either the fifth- or seventh-place game. Stephen Lindsey covers Utah athletics for KSL.com, as well as the SLC Stars and prep sports. Get in touch with him via twitter at @slthe3.