At the end of last season, the Utes watched four of its top six scorers walk out the door, including one NBA first-round pick, and two of their most-experienced returners weren’t even eligible for part of last season due to transfer rules.
And so Utah landed in seventh place in the Pac-12 preseason poll released at the conference’s media day — a clear signal onlookers expected a significant drop off from recent seasons.
Senior graduate transfer Justin Bibbins, who attended Media Day in California, referenced the poll after Utah swept the Oregon schools on the road to start Pac-12 play, saying at the time, “We know where we were seeded, so we just every day play with a chip on our shoulder and come out here and compete.”
Well, Saturday night’s 64-54 win over Colorado in the regular-season finale locked up third place in the Pac-12 for the Utes (19-10, 11-7) and gave them a first-round bye in the conference tournament for the fourth consecutive year. Bibbins just happened to score a game-high 24 points to lead the Utes to victory.
“It feels real good,” Bibbins said on Saturday. “We knew from the beginning that we were going to be a good team, a team to beat in the Pac-12, but we know our work is not done. This third place, all it means is a bye. We still have to come out there this week and play just like every other team. Everyone’s record is 0-0 now.”
Saturday’s win in some ways served as a microcosm of the season: The Utes were forced to mesh the contributions of returners David Collette, Ty Rawson, Gabe Bealer, Sedrick Barfield and Jayce Johnson — all of whom took on larger roles this season — with newcomers such as freshman Donnie Tillman, redshirt freshman Chris Seeley and Bibbins, into a winning formula.
The Utes won nine of 12 to finish conference play with wins against Washington, Washington State, Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Colorado during that stretch. They also lost to regular-season champion Arizona by one point on the road.
“We knew we were the underdogs coming into this year,” said Barefield, who returned from injury and played in his first game since Feb. 17. “We were picked to finish what, ninth? Seventh? We just take it one game at a time, and it just worked out that way. We’re definitely blessed to be the three seed, but at the same time, just because we have bye doesn’t mean we [automatically] go into that next game and handle business or have a golden token. We got to come into Vegas ready to go.”
The Utes will play the winner of Wednesday night’s Washington State-Oregon tilt on Thursday night. The Utes are on the same side of the bracket as No. 2 seed USC, which swept the season series against the Utes. Several bracketologists still project the Utes on the bubble for making the NCAA Tournament as they get ready to go to Las Vegas.
Collette’s status likely won’t be revealed until game time. He rolled his ankle in the first half on Saturday and went to the hospital for X-rays in the middle of the game. He returned on crutches at the end of the Senior Day ceremony on the court. The X-rays were negative for any broken bones, so it’s conceivable he could play this week.
“I am completely convinced that we can win the tournament,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of teams that feel the same thing. You’ve got to catch lightning in a bottle, catch a few breaks. I think it’s a little bit open.
“I’m still trying to figure out how the Pac-12 is down. I watched all day [Saturday] and someone needs to fill me in on that one. … It’s a good brand of basketball in the Pac-12, and I’m hopeful that we get some people to wake up and realize that and we have a little more presence in the [NCAA] tournament than what the so-called experts are predicting.”