Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak danced in the locker room after the Utes advanced to the NIT semifinals with an overtime victory at Saint Mary’s, sending them to Madison Square Garden in New York.
That’s worth celebrating.
The program’s standards three years after the Utes reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and 20 years after the school appeared in the national championship game may be higher than any NIT achievements. Even so, these Utes deserve credit for what they’ve done since losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament, and they’ve earned the right to have fun in the NIT.
The Utes are the Pac-12′s only remaining basketball program in postseason play after the football team was the only bowl winner in December. Here’s how I compare the NIT to the NCAA Tournament in regard to what the Utes have done and may go on to do.
Reaching the semifinals of the NIT is the equivalent to losing a First Four game in the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio. So by winning three games in this tournament, the Utes have matched what Pac-12 members UCLA and Arizona State achieved this month.
Winning the NIT is just as good as losing an NCAA Tournament game in the round of 64. So the Utes can equal Arizona’s accomplishment.
They’ll play Western Kentucky in the NIT semifinals Tuesday then would meet the Penn State-Mississippi State winner in the title game. Those are not brand names in the sport, but Saint Mary’s is close to that designation in this decade, and Utah beat the Gaels on the road. That’s significant.
Regardless of what happens from this point, the biggest accomplishment for a Utahn in college basketball is Granger High School alumnus Makol Mawien reaching the NCAA’s Elite Eight with Kansas State. Mawien redshirted at Utah is 2015-16, played last year at New Mexico Junior College then joined the Wildcats. He didn’t have a point or a rebound in 22 minutes of Thursday’s win over Kentucky, but he helped K-State reach that stage by averaging 8.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in the team’s first two tournament wins.
So the Wildcats will meet Loyola Chicago on Saturday for a chance to play in the Final Four. Utah already has reached that stage of its tournament, which is not quite the same. Yet that’s the opportunity the Utes gave themselves, and they’re maximizing it.