There was a time when college basketball was king in Utah.
Now is not that time.
Even with the Jazz losing and college football less than inspiring, the former king has no throne.
Last season, none of the state’s Division I teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament. It was a complete shutout, something that hadn’t occurred since 1994. And this season, at the start of conference play for each of the major teams in Utah, it appears the statewide absence could happen again.
BYU is suffering through a down year, having lost four straight games — against Utah, Oregon, Loyola Marymount, and Pepperdine — before Saturday night’s home win against San Diego, a WCC opponent that beat the Cougars twice last season.
Utah State lost its first game in the Mountain West — against perennial league weakling Air Force — and will face much tougher competition as the conference season moves forward. A skeptic could wonder whether it was a coincidence that leading scorer and rebounder Jarred Shaw had a drug charge reduced and was reinstated to the team after a five-game suspension in the wake of that woeful loss. Good thing there are no skeptics around here. Even with Shaw back on the court, the Aggies must vastly improve to increase their shot at a tournament berth.
Weber State has lost all four of its road games this season. Obviously, that’s a problem the Wildcats will have to fix to be taken seriously. Their path to the dance is the easiest of the state’s big four, playing in the Big Sky, but they’ve been rolled in games against the better nonconference competition they’ve faced.
Utah is on an upward swing, and is the best team in the state, despite playing a largely weak schedule. The Utes crushed opponents like Evergreen State and St. Katherine and BYU before losing at home to Oregon and beating Oregon State in their first two Pac-12 games. Delon Wright is a baller, Brandon Taylor had a beastly game against the Beavers, and, in general, Larry Krystkowiak’s team plays rugged defense and uglies up a game to its advantage. If the Utes were a stock, buying now would be wise. But for this group to win on the road in the Pac-12, to make the NCAA Tournament this season, something bigger has to happen, sooner not later.
It will happen later.
A bonus: Ute fans are starting to show up for games again. The Huntsman isn’t full, but, compared to where it was a couple of years ago, when you could have landed a 747 on the court without obstructing anybody’s view, it’s a madhouse.
Look, Utah has a proud basketball tradition. BYU has a proud basketball tradition. So do Utah State and Weber State. There’s a reason all of those schools play their games in hoop hangars voluminous enough to house a handful of those jumbo jets. These palaces are as big as any cluster of college arenas in any state in the country.
The Marriott Center seats 20,900, the Huntsman 15,000, the Spectrum 10,270, and the Dee Events 11,500. That means that on any given night, the local college Division I teams could concurrently play in front of 57,670 spectators. When those buildings were originally constructed, the configurations and capacities were even larger, as was the overall interest in the programs.
And that’s the point.
College basketball used to be the big dog around here.
Now, it isn’t, partly because, in relative terms, it isn’t as good as it once was. It isn’t as watchable as it once was. It isn’t as competitive as it once was. The ceiling has lowered a few notches, and so have the imaginations and expectations of those teams’ fans.
Nobody has to hash through the legacies of the big four, or even their more recent successes. It’s all there, from Kresimir Cosic to Keith Van Horn to Andre Miller to Jaycee Carroll to Jimmer Fredette to Damian Lillard.
But as the alternating, undulating popularity of pro basketball and college football has moved through the Utah sports scene, the collective interest in the college hoop game here — and likely other places, too — has suffered alongside its less-than-raging success.
Maybe that will change. Maybe the talent will heighten. Maybe the recruiting and the competition will get better. Maybe the ceiling — and the imagination — will rise. Maybe the palaces will fill up. Maybe 57,670 fans will show up. Maybe Utah college basketball one day, some day, will be king again.
From here, it’s just hard to stretch the imagination quite that far.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.