Red All Over: Eleven months later, normalcy at Utah, and in the Pac-12, still feels like a long ways off

Zoom media availability, masks, and testing/medical protocols are still prevalent at Utah

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I spent much of Wednesday trying to decide how to fill this first bit of newsletter space.

We’re not quite up to Utah spring football (more on that below), and there isn’t a significant basketball storyline in play at this moment, so what do I do? At some point in the late afternoon, I noticed what Wednesday’s date was.

Eleven months after the sporting world came to a literal standstill at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still feels like we are a long way off from any real semblance of normalcy at the University of Utah, not to mention the Pac-12 as a whole.

When I say normalcy, I mean getting to the point of being done with media availabilities on Zoom, not having to consider whether or not I should cover a game from home, allowing fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium and the Huntsman Center, and other various factors that have been new and unprecedented in the middle of the pandemic.

I said months ago I didn’t expect to come face-to-face with a Utah coach or student-athlete for the rest of the academic year, a prediction that will easily hold up.

It’s been my choice to not be in person at the Huntsman Center out of an abundance of caution, which speaks to my point here.

As for allowing fans, yeah, I think we have a reasonable chance to see a crowd at Rice-Eccles later this year, but as the vaccine rollout continues, it’s honestly too early to make a prediction for the fall.

Another thing I said months ago is that we have no choice but to keep rolling with this whole thing. Personally, I think that’s starting to get harder.

After all, we’ve been doing this for 11 months straight.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• Dates and specifics are not yet public, but Utah appears ready to conduct spring practice beginning next month and really, why not? The Utes were able to get a truncated season played under strict testing and medical protocols, and they will get spring ball accomplished the same way. The plan is for a Red-White Game to take place at the end of spring practice, but details on that are also scarce.

The Utah women’s volleyball team has legitimate Final Four aspirations and a legitimate star in senior outside hitter Dani Drews. The Utes are 6-0 with USC coming to Salt Lake City this weekend, ranked No. 7 in the latest AVCA Top 25, and have dropped all of three sets this season.

• I think the Pac-12 can still get five basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament, but that looks a little more tenuous than it did even a week ago. UCLA, USC and Colorado are all locks currently, but Oregon has slipped to the bubble, which was already being populated by Stanford. Utah has already beaten Stanford once, with the return game on Saturday night in Palo Alto.

• UCLA’s Mick Cronin appears to be the first Pac-12 head coach speaking out against playing the conference tournament next month in Las Vegas. His concerns are real based on the NCAA Tournament’s medical protocols, but every indication is that the league will plow forward with one of its marquee events.

Utah State had two games against Wyoming canceled earlier this week, so unless the Aggies go and schedule someone (SPOILER: They won’t), they will have a full two weeks off before a season-defining pair of games at Boise State on Feb. 17 and 19. Utah State is on the 11- or 12-line, right on the bubble, with little room left for error. Unless Utah State is going to win the Mountain West tournament, it would be well-served to get at least one of those games next week in Boise.

• Color me mildly surprised, not that we’re almost to the end of the regular season, but that we got here without more COVID-related disruptions. To that point, the NCAA Tournament is going to get played next month. It’s going to be a circus that likely isn’t happening without a hiccup or eight, but at this point, it’s going to happen.

Your questions

Q: “Aside from winning the Pac-12 tourney, what would the Runnin’ Utes have to do these last couple of weeks to get in the at-large conversation? Or is winning the tourney the only hope?” — @Zach__Lloyd

A: Utah is going to need to win the Pac-12 Tournament, and it’s pretty cut and dry.

I touched on this topic Wednesday, but Utah is nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Utes are 1-4 vs. Quad 1 teams, with a Quad 3 loss at Washington and a Quad 4 loss to Cal as well.

From a NET/resume perspective, Utah’s remaining schedule is actually pretty backloaded with four Quad 1 opportunities. Even if the Utes get all four of those, the rest of the resume is still pretty unsightly, so yeah, they’re going to need to win the whole thing in Vegas.

For what it’s worth, there is talk of the NIT taking place despite the pandemic. If Utah makes hay here late in the season against good teams, I could see it sneaking into that 32-team, NCAA-run event.

Q: “Do we have a big enough sample size this season to determine what level of impact Caleb Lohner may have had on the Runnin’ Utes had he stuck with his commitment?” — Anonymous

A: Interesting.

Utah has played 15 games, BYU has played 20, so yes, we have a big enough sample size. Lohner’s numbers and metrics aren’t blowing anyone away, but he has been mostly as advertised for the Cougars, who are methodically moving towards a second-straight NCAA Tournament.

Lohner is a hybrid forward, with a high motor and the ability to be physical and rebound the basketball. He is playing significant rotation minutes for Mark Pope, and I have every reason to believe he would be doing the same right now for Larry Krystkowiak.

I’ll leave it there, short of who would be starting and who would be coming off the bench in Utah’s frontcourt because, frankly, that doesn’t matter. Lohner would be playing, and probably playing a lot. Would Lohner’s presence have made up the deficit in some of Utah’s losses? Honestly, who’s to say?

Q: “What are your three go-to sandwiches?” — @MacSporkTwo

A: I appreciate a good sandwich, always have. This list is extremely off the cuff.

1. Genoa, provolone, roasted red peppers, lettuce, brown mustard. 2. Honey turkey, swiss, lettuce, pickles, honey mustard. 3. Peanut butter and jelly, preferably on exceptionally-fresh white bread, which is the only time I eat white bread anymore.

Q: “What was it like covering the 2015-16 Monmouth team that was famous for its bench celebrations? I thought that team was one of the bigger NCAA Tournament snubs in recent memory.” — @jderekpayne

A: Despite this being the internet, there isn’t enough room for me to adequately explain what that season was like. For as long as I stay in this profession, I will never experience another season or another team like that 2015-16 Monmouth squad.

Four student-athletes — Two walk-ons, a redshirt, and a medical disqualification — went viral during a Thanksgiving tournament for their choreographed bench celebrations. Colloquially referred to as the Monmouth Bench Mob, that became an ongoing storyline throughout the season, as it, and the basketball program, gained national notoriety.

With the Bench Mob getting significant attention, that Monmouth team was very, very good. It won at UCLA to open the season, beat ranked Notre Dame and USC on a neutral floor, and later outclassed Georgetown in Washington, D.C. The Hawks won 27 games, including an absurd 17 true-road or neutral-site contests, but they lost the MAAC tournament championship game to Iona and were one of the last four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. They split a pair of NIT games to finish 28-8.

As this question references, that Monmouth team getting left out of the NCAA Tournament has been viewed as an all-time mid-major screw job. With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t necessarily sign on to the notion that this particular mid-major got totally shafted, but that omission speaks to a larger point. If you are a mid-major that does not win your conference tournament, your resume better be bulletproof. In fairness, that Monmouth resume was not without some warts.

In any case, that coaching staff gave me all sorts of access I probably didn’t deserve for the entirety of my time on that beat (2013-18), the players were very approachable and talkative, and that athletic communications staff was a bunch of pros who work hard while not taking themselves too seriously otherwise. It was all very refreshing at a time when college athletics has essentially turned into protecting state secrets.

From a journalism standpoint, covering that program and that league helped push my career forward, no question.

Random musings

• This might be a little “inside baseball” for the fine folks here in Utah, but legendary New York City-based basketball talent evaluator Tom Konchalski died earlier this week. There have been a lot of people weighing in on Konchalski’s impact on the sport, and a lot of journalists writing excellent eulogies (I recommend this one from my friend, Adam Zagoria), so here’s my take. Konchalski is a first-time candidate for the Naismith Hall of Fame this year as a contributor. The Hall of Fame and its selection process have been referred to as an “old boys’ club,” but the folks making the decisions should skip the politics and let Konchalski in on the first shot, even though he never pandered to the right people, or anyone for that matter. Not in a year, not in five years, but now. I’ll save my soapbox in regard to letting Sonny Vaccaro into the Hall of Fame for another day.

• Wednesday was National Pizza Day, so we tried Brick Corners, located on 700 East and specializing in Detroit-style pizza. Good. Heavy and greasy, but definitely good. Here’s a tip, which I learned the hard way a couple of weeks ago, go online early in the day and place your order for later, because they will run out at some point, especially on weekends.

• When my dog is behaving, he belongs to my wife. When my dog is being a jerk, he somehow belongs to me. Funny how that works.