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It is not at the very top of his to-do list as his tenure as the men’s basketball at the University of Utah continues to roll through its infancy, but at some point, Craig Smith is going to have to cobble together a schedule for next season.
This will not be Smith’s first time putting a schedule together, but it will be his first time doing so for a Power Six program after four seasons at South Dakota and three more at Utah State.
The nuances of putting together a nonconference slate at this level may have to change, but Smith’s broad thinking about what a nonconference schedule needs to be will not.
“I always vowed to our fan base, to the players in the program, and the coaching staff, we’re always going to try and schedule to put ourselves in a position to earn an at-large bid,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune last week in a wide-ranging interview. “Obviously, you always want the automatic bid and to win the conference tournament, but if that doesn’t happen, you have to be able to get an at-large bid. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win the national title, but to do that, you have to get to the NCAA Tournament.”
In his previous two stops, Smith showed a willingness to “schedule up,” which essentially means he had a willingness to have his mid-major program play high-majors. That was in an effort to improve his team’s RPI and, as of the 2018-19 season, its NET ranking, all of which was in an effort to improve its resume and get in position for an at-large bid.
Smith’s boldest scheduling play came at South Dakota in 2017-18. A year after winning 22 games, the Summit League regular-season crown and advancing to the NIT, the Coyotes played true road games at TCU, at Duke and at UCLA.
“That stuff didn’t matter because you still couldn’t get an at-large bid,” Smith said half-jokingly.
Smith took that scheduling philosophy to Logan. In three seasons, the Aggies played Saint Mary’s and Arizona State as part of a Thanksgiving event, a one-off guarantee game at Houston, and another at the University of Florida on a neutral floor, albeit the neutral floor was in Miami. There was also a willingness to continue to schedule BYU, which is currently a mid-major contender under coach Mark Pope.
All of this leads to curiosity as to how Smith will schedule at Utah.
If a mid-major wants to end up with a tournament-worthy resume, the current selection climate dictates that it must “schedule up,” and it would help if it won games away from home, whether those be true road games or games played on a neutral floor. Mid-majors stand to benefit greatly by stepping up in class to play a Power Six school.
Most high-major programs like Utah are not in the business of “scheduling up,” mostly because they don’t have to. Power Six conferences generally offer ample opportunity to improve the resume, certainly more so than mid-major conferences like the Mountain West. In theory, that makes it less important for a Power Six to schedule tough outside the conference.
As an example, the last time Utah went to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, its nonconference slate included 10 non-Power Six opponents. The Utes went 11-2 outside the Pac-12, including a neutral-floor win over Duke, 13-5 in the Pac-12, advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament title game, and wound up with a 3-seed for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s like the old poker saying, a chip and a chair,” Smith said. “We’re always going to do what we need to do to have a great NET ranking, to put our team, our program in that position. If we’re not good enough, if we lose those games, then we’re not good enough, but we’re always going to schedule up to put ourselves in that position.”
Some of the first-year scheduling work is already done for Smith. The Utes are contractually locked in to play BYU in each of the next three seasons, with the 2021-22 contest to take place at the Huntsman Center. In January, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told The Tribune that Utah will host Fresno State next season. That matchup is the byproduct of the two sides resolving their differences in the wake of a November lawsuit, filed by Utah after it attempted to cancel a Dec. 19 contest against the Bulldogs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is unclear whether or not COVID-fueled cancellations from last season against Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, and Rice will be on the 2021-22 slate. The Utes still owe Missouri the return game of a home-and-home agreement that began in 2017 at the Huntsman Center.
One big source of scheduling consternation among some fans in recent years has been the glaring lack of games against in-state competition.
Utah played Weber State (2019) and Utah State (2017) as part of the now-defunct Beehive Classic, but the state’s highest-profile basketball program has shown little interest in playing in-state competition outside of BYU, plus the semi-occasional meeting with Utah Valley.
Under Larry Krystkowiak, Utah infamously stopped scheduling Weber State after junior guard Damian Lillard and the Wildcats blew the Utes out in Ogden early in the 2011-12 season. Utah has not scheduled Utah State since 2010, which predated Krystkowiak’s decade-long run as head coach.
A Utah-Southern Utah matchup would likely draw positive attention as the Thunderbirds won the Big Sky regular-season title outright last season, and figure to be in the mix again next season.
While at Utah State, Smith played a home-and-home with Weber State, while a third meeting in Ogden was wiped out last season because of COVID-19 issues. The Aggies were also scheduled to play first-year, transitional Division I foe Dixie State, but that, too, was canceled due to the COVID issues.
“I’ve always believed in tradition and as a basketball enthusiast, to play each other and we have that responsibility,” Smith said. “I think it’s truly important for all of the in-state schools in terms of their fan bases, so we will definitely be doing that. I’m not saying we’re playing all seven in a given year, I’m not saying we’ll play four in a year, but we will reach out to local schools. We intend to do that.
“We’re all about that. It didn’t take long to figure out how knowledgeable this state is, regardless of your affiliation, whether you’re a Utes fan, an Aggies fan, or any other fan. Wherever your allegiance is, all of these schools have knowledgeable fan bases. They love basketball. It’s a united basketball community with their allegiances to their specific teams.”