It’s a simple task, yet a darned near impossible one at the same time.
The road before the Utah basketball team is still wide with plenty of room to maneuver. Just win the next two games at California at Stanford and the Utes will take a gigantic step toward qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
But that’s much easier said than accomplished. For a Utah team that is 1-7 this season away from the Huntsman Center, sweeping two teams as good as Cal and Stanford borders on the miracle. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t much to play for.
“Obviously, it’s a very important week for us and for the entire conference,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We are in a heck of a league and we control our own destiny. If we can win some games and move on up, that’s great. It’s great to be in a position to affect the NCAA Tournament. It’s a reward for being involved in that talk, but we have to be ready to go and play against two quality teams this weekend.”
This week represents a first for Utah in the Krystkowiak era. The Utes are playing games that matter at the end of the regular season, games that have an effect on the rest of the conference, and the NCAA Tournament bubble as well.
For the first time since 2009, Ute fans aren’t looking ahead to next season, or even spring football. This group of Utah players has made clear with its performance that the focus remain strictly on March and the postseason.
That being said, the Utes have a lot of work to do. The NCAA Tournament is still a longshot. Yet, Utah showed up on Joe Lunardi’s list as the 11th team off the tournament bubble on Monday morning. It’s the first time all season that the Utes have been mentioned with ESPN’s leading bracketologist.
“We know that we have a long way to go and a lot of basketball to play,” Utah guard Delon Wright said. “But we have to just take things one game at a time and we have to worry about Cal.”
A more likely scenario is that Utah seems headed for a high seed in the National Invitation Tournament, as several projections have the Utes hosting a first round game, should their NCAA tourney hopes hopes not come to fruition.
So, at 19-9 overall and 8-8 in the Pac-12, there is obviously a ton to play for. If the Utes hope to make noise next week at the conference tournament in Las Vegas, garnering as high a seed as possible is the goal.
If the tournament were to start today, Utah would be the eighth seed and would face Washington. If the Utes were to win that one, a quarterfinal date with Arizona would await. Obviously, Utah would like to avoid the best team in the league for as long as possible. That’s one of the many reasons getting a win this week is important to Krystkowiak’s team.
“I wouldn’t say we’re peaking because you’re only as good as your next game,” Krystkowiak said. “We are getting more efficient, but we still have a long way to go. I think everyone associated with the program has the right mindset, so now it’s time to show and prove.”
Utah at California
O Haas Pavillion, Berkeley, Calif.
Wednesday, 9 p.m.
TV • Pac-12, ESPNU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 19-9, 8-8; California, 20-9, 9-7
Series history • Cal leads 12-9
Utes in the ratings
ESPN BPI: 34
Ken Pomeroy: 35
Realtime RPI: 70
Strength of schedule: 99
Non-conference SOS: 339