Utah’s nonconference hoops schedule is soft, but blame COVID-19, not the Runnin’ Utes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah bench celebrates Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) who dunked on the Ducks in the second half. The University of Utah basketball team was defeated by Oregon, 64-69, Jan. 4, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team will not play the nonconference schedule it originally intended, but at least the Utes will play a nonconference schedule.

After opening the season Dec. 3 vs. Washington at the Huntsman Center, the Utes will play their first of four nonconference games Dec. 8 when they host Idaho State. Beyond that. Utah will travel to BYU on Dec. 12, then host Utah Valley on Dec. 15 and Idaho on Dec. 18.

Nonconference scheduling across the country has been and continues to be fluid with the season set to start nationwide on Wednesday. Utah’s own scheduling has been fluid, if not messy.

The Utes opening with a Pac-12 game vs. Washington comes in the wake of its Friday game vs. the University of New Orleans being canceled due to the Utes dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. An agreement with the Pioneers came together after the originally-planned Nov. 25 opener vs Dixie State falling apart before the two sides got to the point of signing the game contract.

No, this is not the nonconference schedule Utah intended to play, and it may ultimately play to the detriment of its efforts to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

The nonconference schedule is soft

To be clear, in no way is that the Utes’ fault, but rather the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utah’s original nonconference schedule included the original Battle 4 Atlantis field, which had Duke, West Virginia and Ohio State, all of whom will open the season rated as top-10 teams, per authoritative stats-driven site KenPom.com.

If you take the other seven original Battle 4 Atlantis teams, plus the rest of Utah’s original schedule, Utah Valley, Missouri, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, BYU, Fresno State and Rice, the average KenPom rating of the 14 opponents is 123.3. That means Utah’s original schedule was not terribly strong, but absolutely strong enough that if it took care of business in Atlantis, it would have created a perfectly-serviceable nonconference resume for NCAA Tournament selection purposes.

Battle 4 Atlantis was canceled in mid-September. The Utes then signed on for the Crossover Classic in South Dakota, which was the entire Battle 4 Atlantis field with the exception of Dayton replacing Duke, but eventually opted out.

The result of that admittedly-wise decision with COVID-19 raging in South Dakota was a much different nonconference schedule.

The average KenPom rating of Utah’s four nonconference opponents is 252.3. If you remove the Utes’ highest-rated opponent, No. 87 BYU, that average becomes 307.3

By any metric, it’s a soft schedule, and Utah has a once-a-century global pandemic to thank

What does Utah have to do vs. that schedule to go to the NCAA Tournament?

Simply put, Utah’s nonconference resume would be best-served by winning all four of those games.

Now, for the context. A loss to Idaho State Utah Valley or Idaho would be damning, given all three have a KenPom rating of 282 or worse. A loss to BYU would not be crushing, but that game represents Utah’s only opportunity at what could be construed as a quality nonconference win.

The Utes going 3-1 vs. its nonconference schedule may very well turn out fine, but 4-0 would put the Utes in better position with a 20-game Pac-12 schedule coming this season.

According to a handful of reputable, albeit way-too-early NCAA Tournament projections, there is belief that the Pac-12 can get six, maybe even seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. Utah is capable of being on the back end of that group of six or seven, but to do so, it not only needs to make hay against its pre-Christmas nonconference opponents, but preferably make hay against all of them.

Given that games will be postponed and canceled all season, it will be fascinating to see how the NCAA Tournament selection committee ultimately does its job to land on a field of 68 teams.

Is it Utah’s fault that its nonconference schedule is soft? Absolutely not. Should the Utes be penalized for playing a soft schedule that was created due to various pandemic-related factors. No, that doesn’t seem fair either, but time will tell.

The Pac-12 released game dates for men’s basketball on Tuesday afternoon. Utah’s full 24-game slate is below.


Dec. 3, vs. Washington

Dec. 8, vs. Idaho State

Dec. 12, at BYU

Dec. 15, vs. Utah Valley

Dec. 18, vs. Idaho

Dec. 22, at Arizona State

Dec. 31, at UCLA

Jan. 2, at USC

Jan. 6, vs. Oregon State

Jan. 9 or 10, vs. Oregon

Jan. 14, vs. Stanford

Jan. 16, vs. Cal

Jan. 21, at Washington State

Jan. 24, at Washington

Jan. 30, at Colorado

Feb. 4, vs. Arizona

Feb. 6, vs. Arizona State

Feb. 11, at Cal

Feb. 13, at Stanford

Feb. 18, at Oregon State

Feb. 20, at Oregon

Feb. 26, vs. UCLA

March 6, vs. Colorado

March 10-13, Pac-12 Tournament, Las Vegas