Men’s Hoops: Utah and Tulsa, evenly matched

By and

When Utah head coach Jim Boylen goes to exchange pregame pleasantries with Tulsa head coach Doug Wojcik tonight, he’ll likely have more to offer than a handshake.

The meeting will probably be more along the lines of, “Thanks for the opportunity,” with the chance for a laugh and a few anecdotes about what it’s like to work for legendary Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.

Wojcik, who was a former assistant coach under Izzo, cleared the way for Boylen to work under the same Spartan legend when he left the program three years ago to head Tulsa’s basketball program.

Tonight, the two teams of the former Spartan assistants will meet in Tulsa, Okla., for the quarterfinal round of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.

While the CBI has basically existed in the shadows of the well-established postseason tournaments such as the NIT and NCAA Tournament, it hasn’t stopped Boylen from appreciating the opportunity for his team to continue its learning process.

Tonight will be another road test for the Utes on the floor of a Conference USA and former WAC rival.

Utah advanced to the quarterfinals after handling an athletic but undersized UTEP team 81-69 in front of the 5,313 hostile Miner fans, which was the second largest of the CBI. If the Utes want to advance to the semifinals and extend their first postseason run since the 2004-2005 season, the Utes will have to win in the arena that produced the most fans in the opening round.

Playing against Utah’s second Conference USA opponent in a week will present a rare challenge for center Luke Nevill: playing against someone his own size.

Jerome Jordan is a 7-foot sophomore who allows the Golden Hurricane to take a different defensive approach than most teams can afford. Traditionally, teams choose to double-team Nevill in the post, which has allowed shooters such as Johnnie Bryant, Lawrence Borha and Shaun Green to scorch teams with the 15th best 3-point percentage in the nation. But when teams opt to play Nevill straight up, things haven’t always gone well for the Utes.

Teams like Wyoming have opted to allow Nevill to have his way with smaller guys in the post and instead have concentrated on not letting anyone else on Utah beat them. With Jordan on the low blocks, Tulsa can afford to slow down both Ute threats.

On the other side of the ball, Tulsa offers another situation that has given Utah trouble this season.

At 6-foot-3, 190 lbs., Ben Uzoh is the same kind of point guard that presented matchup problems for the Utes in conference play. Uzoh averaged 15.3 points per game this season and will be particularly dangerous driving into the lane against Utah’s bigger, but slower, guard trio. The rest of the Golden Hurricane is as close to a mirror of the Utes as Utah has played against this season.

Jordan and senior Calvin Walls finished second and third in Conference USA in rebounding, and both average more than seven boards per game. Tulsa is also particularly good when it comes to defending the 3-point line which no doubt has a large part to do with Jordan’s domineering presence in the paint. Like Utah, Tulsa doesn’t take many chances on defense and plays more of a denial system. Unlike Utah, Tulsa actually commits more turnovers than it creates.

The one other parallel that can be drawn between the two teams is that both have a guard that is clutch from the free-throw line. The Utes have senior Johnnie Bryant, and Tulsa has Uzoh, both of whom own shooting percentages in the high 80s. As a team, both Tulsa and Utah shoot in the free throws at around 75 percent, meaning that whichever team has the lead down the stretch has a high likelihood of holding that lead to advance to the next round.

Tipoff is set for 7:05 p.m. MST and will be broadcast by FCS (Fox College Sports). For Comcast subscribers, this is channel 413. The CBI website noted that DirecTV will run the game on channel 669, but this could not be confirmed through television programming guides.

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Tyler Cobb

Utah senior guard Johnnie Bryant will look to extend his Utah career as the Utes face Tulsa in the College Basketball Invitational tonight.