No. 5-seeded Utah (24-8; 13-5) will look to recover their form Thursday in a second-round matchup with No. 12-seeded Stephen F. Austin (29-4; 17-1) at Moda Center in Portland. After an excellent start to the season, the Utes have lost four of their last seven games and face a Lumberjacks team experienced in pulling off upsets.
It will be Utah’s first time in the tournament since 2009, and this year's squad will look to not suffer an early exit. The Utes are led by senior guard Delon Wright, who averages 14.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Junior guard Brandon Taylor has been a solid complement, adding 10.7 points and 3.3 assists per game.
Taylor expects Utah's hard work to pay off, and the Utes' to overcome their recent struggles.
"You want to approach every game with the mentality that we're just going to go out there and play harder than our opponent," he said to reporters. "That right there is going to lead to showing the world that Utah basketball is back."
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak had a more stoic response to leading Utah back to the NCAA tournament.
"I haven't been caught up too much in the soft side and the emotion of the thing,” he said in a press conference. “It's been more the meat and potatoes, trying to get this thing ready to go."
S.F. Austin will look to play spoiler for the second year in a row. Last year, once again as a 12-seed, the Lumberjacks beat VCU 77-75 in overtime to pull a major upset. If they are able to hold off Utah, it will likely have a lot to do with Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup. The junior guard averages 15.7, 6.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Walkup has been on hot in his last five games, averaging 18.6 points. Senior forward Jacob Parker provides extra scoring punch at 14.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, as well.
The Lumberjacks enter the game having won nine-straight and 28 of their last 29 games. They lost three straight early in the year to NCAA-tournament-bound teams UNI, Xavier and Baylor. SF Austin’s success this season is because of the type of player they feature, according to their head coach Brad Underwood.
"We have a term, we want 'everyday' guys, and we're going to show up and work hard every single day," he said in a press conference. "But [winning] gives you confidence. We don't get rattled, up, down, whatever."
The Lumberjacks boast one of the best offenses in college basketball, averaging a 79.5 ppg, good for ninth-most in the NCAA. They also led the NCAA in assists-per-game with 17.8 and were fifth in field goal percentage at 49.1 percent. Utah is tough to score on, however, allowing just 56.9 points per game, 11th best in the NCAA.
Vegas is predicting Utah will find a way to win. The Utes are a 6-1/2 point favorite, according to bovada.lv.
Start Time: 7:27 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Tru TV
Live Stream: Watch online at March Madness Live
Prediction: This has the makings of a nail-biter. S.F. Austin has a high-powered offense that could challenge the stingy Utes defense. In the end, Utah should have enough to earn a win.
Utah over S.F. Austin, 65-62