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Utah trailed Arizona State by 17 points barely 10 minutes into a Pac-12 opener in early January, and I was thinking this basketball season would be my punishment for getting to cover the compelling story of the the Utes’ 2018 football season.
Utah got better, and so did the story of its basketball season. As the Utes prepare for Thursday’s (9:40 p.m. MDT) quarterfinal game vs. Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, they’ve made this season interesting to witness — regardless of when and where it ends, including the possibility of that happening Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.
Is a third-place finish in the Pac-12 an achievement? No, not in a year when the league likely will send two teams to the NCAA Tournament. But yes, for a group that looked like the No. 10 team when conference play started, standing 6-6 overall and being projected to win 6.1 league games, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
The Utes went 11-7 in the conference schedule. My job is to analyze their season, whether they’re 12-18 overall, 17-13 or something better. But there’s a lot to be said for a covering a team that has a mixture of ups and downs and figures out some things along the way, as the Utes have done in both football and basketball in 2018-19.
The basketball team’s six conference road wins, starting with that comeback at Arizona State and including the stunning finish at UCLA, will distinguish this season. The Utes also had their struggles in the Pac-12, notably home-court losses to Oregon and Oregon State, and there were moments when it looked as if their season would fall apart. But they responded by doing things I doubted they could do: improving to a 6-3 record in the second half of the league schedule and sweeping USC and UCLA at the Huntsman Center, where they hadn’t played great. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson had these thoughts about the Utes after the UCLA game, and I marveled about the Utes’ 97-47 run in 29 consecutive minutes of two games vs. the Bruins.
Watching senior guards Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke maximize their seasons will stick with me, much like witnessing the work of football players Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. And the Utes’ resurgence was rewarded when Barefield, Timmy Allen and Donnie Tillman received recognition from the Pac-12 coaches.
Thursday’s game vs. Oregon will be challenging, that’s for sure. The Ducks have talent and depth, and their defense is suffocating opponents lately. And then there’s Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak’s 2-14 record against Oregon’s Dana Altman, including 0-4 in Las Vegas. Those comebacks vs. ASU and UCLA aside, it seems imperative that the Utes have a good start in this game.
Turning to football, the Utes will resume practice Tuesday after returning from the school’s spring break. Utah has 12 sessions to go, ending with the April 13 Red-White Game. This week gave me a chance to tell the stories of transfer quarterback Cameron Rising from Texas and transfer linebacker Manny Bowen from Penn State. Their timetables are different, but they look like vital players.
The Ute gymnastics team is back in action Saturday at Georgia, and then comes a big week when Utah will be hosting the NCAA basketball tournament (at Vivint Smart Home Arena) and the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championship (at the Maverik Center).
And the athletic department is celebrating the national championship for the men’s and women’s ski teams last weekend, with a strong performance at Stowe, Vt.
John Canzano of The Oregonian continues to probe into Pac-12 expenses and revenue, including a look at commissioner Larry Scott’s lodging in Las Vegas. (ORE)
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News analyzes a power shift in how the conference’s schools are operating. (MERC)
Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News also took a look at Barefield’s career last week. (DNEWS)
• Utah’s inaugural men’s lacrosse season is becoming a good story. The Utes are 4-4, after a very competitive 17-11 loss at No. 2 Duke on Tuesday. The game was tied at halftime, after the Utes briefly held the lead. Utah will visit Fairfield on Friday and UMass on Sunday.
• The Ute baseball team will open Pac-12 play Friday with a three-game series at Arizona. The Utes (6-6) finally got to play their home opener Monday after two postponements and beat Niagara 10-5. Utah then lost 5-3 to Gonzaga on Tuesday. The Utes will conclude the Arizona swing Monday with a nonconference game at Grand Canyon.