Somebody said the NCAA Tournament is starting this week. This would suggest the rest of the country is distinct from Utah.
Nothing like this had happened since 1989. That’s the last time none of the state’s Division I men’s basketball programs qualified for the tournament and no Utah venue served as a first-round host.
Making it even worse, the two-year absence of Utah schools in the field represents a collective 64-year low. This is the first time since 1953 and ’54 when all of the state’s Division I teams failed to make the NCAA field in consecutive seasons. In those days, 24 teams were invited and only Utah, BYU and Utah State were competing at that level. Having six teams play in five conferences creates more opportunities now — but that didn’t help the local cause sufficiently this season.
So as those 68 other teams prepare for their NCAA showcases, five observations about the state of college basketball in Utah and nearby locales:
How close did any Utah teams come?
Not close at all. Unlike last March, when Weber State lost in overtime in the Big Sky Conference championship game, nobody really was in the automatic-qualifying picture. BYU reached the West Coast Conference title game, but was done with 15 minutes to play against Gonzaga.
Judging by the committee’s treatment of USC, merely reaching the Pac-12 championship game wouldn’t have been good enough for Utah’s at-large case. That’s not consoling to the Utes, who blew an 11-point lead in the last 10 minutes of a quarterfinal loss to Oregon — which then lost to USC, which then lost to Arizona.
The Utes tied for third in the Pac-12 with UCLA, a No. 11 seed in the NCAAs, and Stanford. Utah’s biggest blemishes were nonconference losses to UNLV, Butler and BYU and a home loss to USC. The rest of the schedule couldn’t provide enough value to overcome those defeats.
The Pac-12 is devalued
Even with the perceived gift of Arizona State’s making the field, Selection Sunday was not rewarding to the Pac-12. The conference received only two at-large bids, and ASU and UCLA both were assigned to the First Four as No. 11 seeds in Dayton, Ohio.
Arizona, the regular-season and tournament champion, is a No. 4 seed. Having only three teams picked is a big dropoff from two years ago, when seven schools were selected. Last March, the Pac-12 had three top-three seeds, plus a fourth contestant.
Subconsciously or not, the committee had to have been affected by the FBI investigation of Arizona and USC.
The WCC is valued even less
Mid-major advocates will decry ASU’s inclusion over Saint Mary’s, but that selection is completely defensible. The Sun Devils did exactly what the committee has asked, scheduling ambitiously and winning those games. The season really does start in November, it turns out. ASU’s 12-0 record featured wins over No. 1 seeds Kansas and Xavier, along with NCAA participants Kansas State and San Diego State.
Saint Mary’s did beat Gonzaga on the road in WCC play, but the Gaels lost to Washington State and Georgia in a neutral-site tournament. Notre Dame, not Saint Mary’s, was the first team out.
What happens locally in 2019?
Last April, amid roster turnover, I said Utah wouldn’t make the 2018 field. In November, I said no team from the state would be included. In January, I said so again. So what I’m saying is, this statewide phenomenon is not surprising.
Will anyone break through next season? Maybe. BYU logically is best positioned to do so, with every player scheduled to return. The asterisk is that Saint Mary’s didn’t make this year’s field — thanks partly to BYU’s upset in the WCC semifinals. So what would BYU have to do, aside from knocking off Gonzaga?
Utah’s recruiting is being upgraded, but the Utes might be another year away. Coach Larry Krystkowiak needs to do something significant in the NCAAs in the next two or three seasons to justify his $3 million salary.
Sophomore guards Jerrick Harding of Weber State and Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill of Utah State deserve an NCAA appearance in their careers — with a new coach, in the Aggies’ case, after the firing of Tim Duryea — but it won’t come easily. Utah Valley’s roster was geared to this season, and the Wolverines fell short. I shouldn’t dismiss Southern Utah, after the No. 10-seeded Thunderbirds were down by only six points in the last three minutes of the Big Sky semifinals.
Utahns in the 2018 field
Alumni of Utah high schools will give the state some connection to the tournament. Granger’s Makol Mawien (Kansas State), Davis’ Jesse Wade (Gonzaga) and Wasatch Academy products Jackson Rowe (Cal State Fullerton) and Emmanuel Akot (Arizona) will be worth watching during the opening weekend. Of those players, only Mawien and Rowe are rotation regulars, and their teams are unlikely to advance to the Sweet 16.