In recent seasons, by this time of the year, the Utah men’s basketball team has been well out of postseason contention, and most of the attention at the U. is usually turning to gymnastics and spring football.
Wednesday’s matchup with Arizona will have a slightly different feel, however. Check that. The Huntsman Center will have a much different feel. Instead of apathy, there is expected to be electricity. Instead of a sparse weeknight crowd, a full house is expected.
Arizona at Utah
O At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff » Wednesday, 8 p.m.
TV » Fox Sports 1
Radio » 700 AM
Records » Arizona 23-2 (10-2); Utah 17-8 (6-7)
Series history » Utah leads 28-26
Last meeting » Arizona 65, Utah 56 (Jan. 26)
About the Wildcats » Arizona lost to arch-rival Arizona State on Friday night. … The Wildcats fell from No. 2 to No. 4 in the latest Associated Press poll. … T.J. McConnell was named to the Bob Cousy watch list on Monday, given annually to the best point guard in the country. … Utah hasn’t beaten the Wildcats since entering the Pac-12. … Arizona is playing without Brandon Ashley, its starting small forward.
About the Utes » Utah currently sits seventh in the Pac-12. … The Utes will play three straight games at home, before hitting the road for the final two games. … Delon Wright was the only double-figure scorer for Utah in its loss to UCLA on Saturday. … Utah’s last five opponents are all over .500 in the Pac-12. … The Utes are attempting to reach the .500 mark in conference.
Much of that is because the Wildcats are the No. 4 team in the country, and the best team in the Pac-12. But the Utes deserve some of the credit as well. In the middle of February, Larry Krystkowiak’s team has a lot to play for. Should Utah get hot during the last five games, it can play itself into NCAA Tournament contention. It won’t be easy, but the possibility is certainly there.
"We definitely think we have a shot to get to the highest tournament," Utes guard Brandon Taylor said. "We know that this is a really big game and that these are really big games coming up. We have a lot of opportunity, and we want to see if we can take advantage."
Utah’s final five opponents — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, California, Stanford — are all projected to be in the NCAA Tournament. Most carry the distinction of being top-50 RPI teams, and wins over those are gold to the selection committee.
That means the Utes have a very difficult schedule remaining — and a schedule that’s rife with opportunity.
Utah is 17-8 overall, 6-7 in the Pac-12. It’s generally accepted that the conference will garner six at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Colorado, Stanford and California are all close to the proverbial bubble — the unseen cut-line that causes drama and intrigue around the country each season at this time.
"I think they have to win four of five to end the regular season," said nbcsports.com college basketball analyst Raphielle Johnson. "BYU is their best nonconference win, so just because their nonleague schedule was so weak, they need to get to 10-8 in the league. Then they have to win one in the Pac-12 Tournament. But this team is going in the right direction and has a lot of nice pieces."
In a large way, Utah’s biggest win came last Thursday over USC — the worst team in the league. Without that victory, the Utes probably would’ve been eliminated from contention. They already have a bad loss on their résumé to Washington State. That, plus a long-talked-about weak nonconference schedule would’ve doomed Utah.
Everyone in the program knows a lot of work has to be done and that the NCAA Tournament is a tall order. Everyone also knows that the NIT is the next rung and would be a good step and a big accomplishment for a young Utah team.
Already, the NIT selection committee has been in touch with the Utes. Athletic director Chris Hill has also delayed construction at the Huntsman Center in order to clear the way for a potential home game.
Either way, it appears Utah will be back in postseason play. That means a winning record. That means more practices and more valuable time spent between players and coaches. Still, the Ute players spoke of the ultimate goal this summer. That’s the NCAA Tournament. And even if that goal is further away, it’s still within reach.
"The teams we are playing are all postseason teams, so we will have a lot of chances over the last three weeks," Utah forward Jordan Loveridge said. "We know that we’re going to have to play well, if we want to get this done."
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