One of the last checkpoints of the college basketball offseason came this past week, when players faced a deadline for remaining in the NBA draft or returning to school. There’s a scoreboard for everything these days, so programs were graded for how well they succeeded in keeping their players.
Everybody’s list of the biggest winners included Nevada, which makes BYU the biggest … loser? Or a winner, depending on how much you value a strong nonconference schedule.
The Cougars may feel differently Nov. 6, when they reportedly will open the 2018-19 season at Nevada. At the moment, they should consider themselves successful in coach Dave Rose’s bid to build a better schedule for the sake of NCAA Tournament credentials.
Same story with Utah, whose marquee opponent is Kentucky, Dec. 15 in Lexington. The Wildcats’ personnel situation is unlike any other school’s. Kentucky also is considered one of the winners this year, just because forward PJ Washington chose to come back, while a bunch of teammates departed.
The fact that I’m even discussing college basketball in June is a good sign, stemming from these efforts to book quality opponents. Even in this state, where Utahns like to believe we invented basketball, the sport needs any jolt it can get prior to March.
That’s especially true before conference play starts in January, and that’s why booking the likes of Nevada and Kentucky can only help — even if these deals won’t immediately benefit the home fans.
BYU might be biting off too much, actually. Once finalized, the Cougars’ schedule will be road-heavy, with trips to Nevada, San Diego State, Mississippi State, Weber State and Illinois State, plus a date with UNLV at the technically neutral site of T-Mobile Arena. Houston will come to Provo, along with Utah Valley and Utah State, and the Cougars will meet Utah at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Nevada deserves to have “Final Four expectations,” according to CBSSports.com’s review of the staying and going of the early draft entries. Jordan Caroline and the Martin twins, Caleb and Cody, combined to average 50.6 points and 20.3 rebounds last season for a Wolf Pack team that lost to Loyola of Chicago by one point in the Sweet 16.
ESPN.com declared Nevada the biggest winner among the teams that were in danger of losing their best players. Mississippi State has plenty of returning talent and San Diego State again will be solid. So the Cougars clearly have beefed up their schedule, while replacing two games against lower-tier teams in the West Coast Conference’s new format. Rose’s nonconference approach is ambitious, but certainly worth trying after three years of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Utah also needed an upgrade after two years out of the NCAA field. Coach Larry Krystkowiak has defended his schedule as comparable to other Pac-12 schools’ nonconference approaches, but that’s not fully satisfying. A two-game series with Kentucky is a breakthrough, though, even if there was no hope of having the Wildcats visit the Huntsman Center. That’s just not something UK would do.
So the teams will meet in Las Vegas in December 2019, when Krystkowiak’s influx of talent should produce a very good team. The only problem is the game is on a Wednesday, making the trip less attractive to Utah fans. That’s why Kentucky agreed to the second meeting; the Wildcats already were booked to play Ohio State as part of a weekend doubleheader at T-Mobile Arena.
The Utes also will visit Missouri this season, with forward Jontay Porter returning to the Tigers. Some mock drafts had him in the Jazz’s range (No. 21), before he decided to stay in school. Tulsa will come to the Huntsman Center (Krystkowiak has said he hopes to find one more high-profile opponent) and Utah will play in the Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, Calif. The brackets have not been set; the field includes Fresno State, Grand Canyon, Hawaii, La Salle, Miami, Northwestern and Seton Hall.
The variable of tournament play is a loss can skew the schedule toward lesser opponents, as the Utes discovered in Hawaii two years ago. So the Utes would do well to win their first-round game in Fullerton and create some bigger opportunities for themselves.