This is more a raw reaction than anything, but … come on, college basketball in Utah’s about as much fun this year as a socket wrench to the head. Not only does it hurt, it’s sucked the life straight out of the run-up to conference tournaments and March Madness. What else is February good for around here, other than freezing our tails and making us wish we lived on the 18th fairway at Sharks Tooth or Jupiter Hills or had a vacation home in Playa del Carmen?
We got nothing now but lingering blasts of winter, and sooty particulates in the air, in our eyes, in our lungs, and two months before warmer temps arrive or the NBA playoffs begin.
College basketball used to be the big dog in this state. Remember back then? Maybe you don’t, but old-timers do. Back when Stan Watts and Jack Gardner were coaching. When sports fans were interested enough in the local teams to cause BYU to build the Marriott Center, Utah to build the Huntsman Center, Utah State to build the Spectrum, and Weber to build the Dee Events Center.
The Cougars, Utes, Aggies and Wildcats used to stir enough enthusiasm to regularly fill those cavernous venues. Now, they seem like complete overkill, like you could dynamite the upper concourses and not eliminate anybody’s valued seat. There was a time when they were all valued.
Back when college basketball was king.
Well, it’s not king, not anymore.
And that was true long before this sad season came along. Even when Rick Majerus’ teams did their winning, a bit of the shine had come off the college game here. Twenty years ago, BYU was consulting marketing experts about how to get more customers into so many empty seats. It finally found a way, for a brief period, when Jimmerheads came out in droves. Most seasons, over the past decade, USU’s Spectrum was the best place to soak in some college-hoop atmosphere.
Winning big — or even little — is the answer to most everything, as long as there’s hope at the end.
This season, hope has vanished deep into the inversion.
Utah was never going to the Dance this year, measuring success rather by way of small steps forward, by an occasional win here, a solid effort there, a half-filled building on a good night, and a near-victory down at BYU. Nobody knows yet whether Larry Krystkowiak will take a once-proud program back to its origins. The Utes currently are 11-13, 3-9 in conference, coming off a win over Arizona State and facing Arizona on Sunday. One certainty: They won’t be doing anything of note in the postseason.
BYU, while it hasn’t stumbled to Utah’s depths, has fallen flat. The Cougars sat at 18-8 heading into Saturday night’s home game against Portland, having coughed up consecutive losses to San Diego and San Francisco, the latter double-digit gag coming at the Marriott. Playing in the WCC, the only way BYU gets into the NCAA Tournament is if Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s don’t board their buses for Vegas in March.
Is Utah State even playing basketball anymore? Is there anyone left in the locker room or is everybody in rehab? Prior to Saturday night’s late game against New Mexico State, the Ags already had lost five conference games in a weak league. When they fall on their home court to Denver in overtime on a 30-foot buzzer beater, you know there’s no anticipation for anything special this season.
Weber State is Utah’s best shot at the NCAA Tournament, and the Wildcats have already lost to both BYU and USU. On their home floor, the Weebs beat Montana, the Big Sky’s No. 1 team, the other night. Still, getting past the Grizzlies in the conference tournament wouldn’t be a great bet.
That’s the sorry state in a sorry state of college basketball here. It’s probably an aberration. A couple of these teams will bounce back in the years ahead. Until then, we’ll have to hack our way through the February freeze and the particulates stuck in our lungs.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.