PORTLAND, Ore. — Both Utah (25-8, 13-5 Pac-12) and Georgetown (22-10, 12-6 Big East) had pundits doubt them in their second round matchups.
Thursday evening, however, both teams proved critics wrong, as the Utes and the Hoyas advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament. The two teams will face off tonight at the Moda Center.
Although the Utes and Hoyas had comfortable margins of victory over their opponents, at seven and 10 points, respectively, each won in rather unconventional ways.
In Georgetown’s 84-74 second-round win against Eastern Washington, the bench scored 45 points, the most points for a Georgetown’s bench since 2010.
This attack was led by junior center Bradley Hayes. Midway through the first half, Hayes entered the game when Eastern Washington had the momentum. In the absence of senior center Joshua Smith, who was benched upon picking up two fouls in the first four minutes, the Eagles went on to build a small lead and seemed to take control of the game.
But Hayes provided the Hoyas with a much-needed lift. The 7-foot-2-inch junior, who has received limited playing time in his collegiate career, muscled his way into the paint and scored eight first half points, more points than he had scored all season combined.
“His caring has never waned. I’m happy for him, happy for us that he came in and played the way he did yesterday,” Head Coach John Thompson III said.
And perhaps Hayes will have another opportunity to contribute on Saturday, especially if Smith gets into foul trouble.
“If it happens, it happens,” Thompson said on Smith getting into foul trouble. “I think we have enough other good players … that if that happens, I don’t think it’s going to be life or death.”
Meanwhile, in its second-round matchup against Stephen F. Austin, Utah only managed to score 57 points, 14 points less than its season average. Notably, its two leading scorers, senior guard Delon Wright and junior guard Brandon Taylor, combined for only 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting from the floor.
Georgetown, however, should not expect that same performance from the Utah backcourt. This season, the Utes averaged 71.6 points per game and were the ninth best team from the three-point line, shooting 40.1 percent.
“They put the ball in the basket. Once you start to give a little too much help, they’re making the next pass, the extra pass,” Thompson said. “As well as they shoot the ball, they can get to the basket, they have a post presence. They’re a very balanced offensive team.”
Utah also boasts a pair of seven-foot centers, including freshman center Jakob Poeltl, who led the team with 18 points and eight rebounds against Stephen F. Austin. With such an interior threat, it is crucial that Georgetown stays out of foul trouble.
“If we can keep [our big men] in the rotation, keep them involved in the game, I think we’ll be pretty good down low,” junior guard D’Vauntes Smith Rivera said.
Senior center Dallin Bachynski, another Utah seven footer who did not play against Stephen F. Austin because of a sprained ankle, is expected to return Saturday and will likely factor into the outcome of the game.
“I thought it was a little bit of a win-win and that we made sure that Dallin got completely healthy with another day of rest,” Utah Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Now this is a perfect matchup with him, with a lot of size and strength.”
Despite these offensive threats, Utah prides itself on its defense, holding teams to an average of 56.7 points a game this season.
“They’re big, they’re versatile. They do a good job of just staying in front of you,” Thompson said. “There’s no easy basket. You watch tape after tape after tape. No one gets an easy basket against them. They really make you work every possession to get a decent look at the basket.”
Although Georgetown boasts its own arsenal of offensive weapons, communication will be key in tonight’s matchup, according to Thompson.
“At this point, you know, the teams that are going to win are teams that feel good about themselves, teams that execute, teams that have players step up like with Bradley Hayes [Thursday],” Thompson said. “That’s what this tournament is about. Those teams, those players that step up, that’s who is going to progress.”
Unlike Eastern Washington Head Coach Jim Hayard, Krystkowiak will not be guaranteeing a win against Georgetown.
“The prediction side of things is the last place I want to go,” Krystkowiak said. “I’ve always felt like the underdog, regardless of who it is we’re playing.”
With a win against Utah, Georgetown would advance to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2007.
“I mean, we’re not here, we’re not playing in this tournament to say we won one game,” Thompson said. “That’s not why we’re in this thing. I think that our team feels we still have some unfinished business, and we’re anxious and excited to play.”