Utah embracing the excitement, uncertainty heading into Pac-12 tourney

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Tyler Rawson (21) shoots as Colorado Buffaloes forward Lucas Siewert (23) and Colorado Buffaloes guard Lazar Nikolic (11) defend, in PAC-12 basketball action between Utah Utes and Colorado Buffaloes, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, March 3, 2018.

Las Vegas • Uncertainty is swirling around Utah as it gets ready to start the postseason. Even the most accurate crystal ball couldn’t give a clear picture of what lies ahead during this week’s excursion in the desert.

The Utes’ opening next opponent, their NCAA Tournament prospects and the availability of their senior all-conference post player David Collette all remained fluid as the week got under way.

The Utes (19-10, 11-7) head into the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 3 seed and await a matchup with either sixth-seeded Oregon (20-11, 10-8) or 11th-seeded Washington State (12-18, 4-14) on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. MST at T-Mobile Arena.

The Oregon-Washington State game was the last game of the opening round on Wednesday night. The Utes, who are a combined 3-0 against Oregon and Washington State this season, can advance to the tournament semifinals with a win on Thursday night.

“It’s called March Madness for a reason,” Utes senior forward Tyler Rawson said after the regular-season finale. “You can definitely feel the pressure. The lights are a little brighter. The stage is a little bigger. It’s what we dream of since we’ve been little kids. It’s what we’ve worked for all season going back into summer. It’s what we’ve worked for and it’s what we’ve dreamed [about]. We’re ready to live it.”

An NCAA Tournament berth hangs in the balance for the Utes this week. A Pac-12 tournament win would guarantee an appearance in the big dance, but failing to secure that automatic bid would leave their fate in the hands of the selection committee. The Utes sit on the fringe of getting in or being left out according to several national pundits who specialize in projecting the NCAA Tournament field.

The Utes finished the regular season having won six of their last seven games in order to secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament. However, their out of conference schedule hasn’t done much to bolster their resume. TeamRankings.com rated the Utes’ schedule the 70th toughest in Division I as of Wednesday.

Asked if the Utes head into the tournament feeling like they need a certain number of wins this week in order to get into the NCAA Tournament, junior guard Sedrick Barefield replied, “No. Because our goal is to win the [Pac-12] Tournament. In order to do that, we’ve got to go one game at a time. It’s going to be tough because it’s back-to-back games, but at this point anybody can win this tournament. We’ve played the best teams in our conference real close — particularly Arizona — so I think we have a shot.”

Collette, a Second Team All-Pac-12 selection and Utah’s second-leading scorer, suited up for the team’s workout on Wednesday and walked gingerly as the team arrived at Clark High School in Las Vegas, but practice was closed to reporters. Collette rolled his ankle badly in the regular-season finale on Saturday, went to the hospital for X-rays during the game and returned on crutches for the Senior Day ceremony following the game.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak described Collette as “hobbled,” and said it didn’t look favorable for the center, despite the training staff working diligently with him.

If Collette is not able to play or can only play in a limited fashion, the Utes will likely lean on sophomore 7-footer Jayce Johnson and redshirt freshman Chris Seeley. Johnson has played through a foot ailment that forced him to sit out against Washington State on Feb. 17. The Utes could also use freshman Donnie Tillman more at forward to fill a need for size.

“We’re probably not going to run the same plays for Jayce or Chris that we would for Dave,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re going to have to lean on some different guys and define some roles. I’ve told a lot of guys I think they could be the X-factor.

“Watching these games — the other night I watched the championship game with Michigan in it and there was kind of an unsung hero off the bench that people didn’t really talk about that had close to 20 points. Every year in tournaments there’s players that step up that you didn’t expect it. I’m encouraging our guys to try to be one of those guys.”

Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament Schedule<br>At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas<br>Thursday<br>Colorado-Arizona State winner vs. No.1 Arizona, 1:00 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network<br>Stanford-Cal winner vs. No. 4 UCLA, 3:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network<br>Washington-Oregon State winner vs. No. 2 USC, 7:00 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network<br>Oregon-Washington State winner vs. No. 3 Utah, 9:30p.m. MT, FS1<br>Friday<br>Semifinal 1, 7:00 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network<br>Semifinal 2, 9:30 p.m. MT, FS1<br>Saturday<br>Pac-12 Championship, 8:00 p.m. MT, FS1