Utes mailbag: Can this Utah Runnin’ Utes team get to the NCAA Tournament?

Plus: Does BYU have the coaching edge in both football and basketball at the moment?

New University of Utah men's basketball coach Craig Smith tours the Huntsman Basketball Facility on March 27, 2021

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I’m a basketball guy.

Always have been, always will be.

I’m a basketball guy and, since this is my mailbag, and since every Utah fan has spent the last week mourning the loss of Aaron Lowe and grappling with much bigger topics, we are starting this week off with basketball questions.

I apologize to absolutely no one.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: Maybe too early still for this, but approximately where do you think Runnin’ Utes finish in the Pac-12: Top 4, middle 4, bottom 4?: -- justincraig40

A: It’s never too early for hoops, but yes, it’s probably too early to give even a reasonably educated guess here.

I have been consistent that I believe, on paper, this Utes team is No. 8 or 9 in the Pac-12. This group will play hard for Craig Smith, it will defend at a high level on the majority of nights, as Smith-coached teams tend to do. It will beat some teams it shouldn’t, and it’ll probably lose to a couple of teams it shouldn’t, too.

If Utah plays well enough and things around it break right, I could see the Utes finishing higher than that 8-9 projection.

Q: “What is the scenario that the Runnin’ Utes make the NCAA Tournament and what would you put the odds at?” -- @coreyc04

A: Under the well-documented scheduling circumstances this staff was handed, and with the roster it has put together, this is a good, solid non-conference schedule. It has a bunch of winnable games, while sprinkled with a small handful of good-early season barometers.

That said, if Utah is going to be an NCAA Tournament team with this schedule, there is very little room for error. This slate is not good enough to take on a bunch of early losses and still be in the mix.

BYU and Missouri are both huge opportunities for resume-type wins. TCU on a pseudo-neutral floor at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth is a notch below the other two. Picking up two wins at the Sunshine Slam against Boston College, and then either URI or Tulsa, would help.

What would I put the odds of Utah making the NCAA Tournament? On Oct. 6? Let’s call it 40-1.

Q: “What’s the best thing you’ve eaten since the season started?” -- @StaircaseWhitt

A: A 4 p.m. kickoff vs. San Diego State in Carson on Sept. 19 meant there was ample time to wake up early, take a pre-dawn drive to Malibu, get a hike in, and go for breakfast at Country Kitchen, an unassuming shack in a small strip mall on Pacific Coast Highway.

Bud, I need you to listen to me right now. If you ever find yourself at Country Kitchen, go for any of the breakfast burrito options. Made fresh, made fast, made right, made all day.

I had been looking forward to that road trip for weeks, specifically for the opportunity to hit Country Kitchen. It never disappoints.

Q: “Is Urban Meyer done if the Jaguars fire him this week?” -- @foxonabox_

A: No.

Jaguars owner Shad Khan did not fire Meyer on Tuesday, but he did release a pretty harsh statement that things need to get turned around after an 0-4 start, plus this needless embarrassment.

If Meyer were to be fired, he would be quite the opposite of done. Rather, you would have any number of Power Five programs with coaching vacancies and money falling over themselves to hire him. Meyer is 187-32 as a college head coach, including 83-9 with a national championship at Ohio State.

If and when Meyer is done in Jacksonville, he will coach again if he wants to coach again. Any and every indiscretion would be overlooked.

Food for thought: If Meyer winds up the next head coach at USC, it is the Trojans’ turn to play at Utah next season. That would be quite the spectacle. Meyer, as we all know, went 22-2 as the head coach of the Utes in 2003 and 2004. That 2004 team went 12-0, becoming the first BCS qualifier from a non-AQ conference.

Q: “Based on current results, it appears that the best coach in football and men’s basketball (not to mention many other sports) now appears to be at BYU. Should Ute fans be concerned?” -- Emailer Russ

A: We’ll start with basketball, because I’ve been consistent on this, too: Mark Pope has the juice right now. In two seasons, he is 44-15 overall, 23-6 in the WCC, and would have gone to two NCAA Tournaments had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled the event in 2020.

Craig Smith has been no slouch over a long period of time, most recently at Utah State, but he has yet to coach a game at Utah. So OK, sure, advantage there goes to Pope, who has recruited at a high level and will continue to get mentioned for Power Five openings.

Kalani Sitake went 11-1 last season with a good team vs. a bad schedule. BYU is currently 5-0, ranked in the top 10 and is playing at a high level with potential College Football Playoff arguments beginning to simmer.

Granted, Sitake is doing a terrific job, including beating Utah on Sept. 11, but I would argue for some sustained success before you start choosing Sitake over Kyle Whittingham. To boot, that head-to-head matchup is now 5-1 in favor of Whittingham.

Q: Has a team/coach ever lost three straight to three straight interim coaches at the same school?” -- @purdie44

A: To be clear, this was a rhetorical question, but I thought it was funny, if not ridiculous, so I’m sharing it here.

In 2013, USC fired Lane Kiffin on Sept. 29 after a 2-3 start. On Oct. 26, interim head coach Ed Orgeron beat the Utes, 19-3. That Utah team finished 5-7.

In 2015, Utah went to the LA Coliseum at 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25. USC was 3-3 and was under the direction of interim head coach Clay Helton after Steve Sarkisian was fired 12 days earlier. Trojans 42, Utes 20.

On Sept. 13, Helton was fired, with associate head coach Donte Williams taking over as the interim.

Q: “Where do you have to eat in Los Angeles?” -- @iampangean

A: Two spots come to mind immediately, both Mexican, neither of which I’m getting to on this trip, and that hurts my heart.

Don Antonio’s, which is on West Pico Boulevard, about 10 minutes (with minimal traffic) from the Santa Monica Pier. You may remember Don Antonio’s as Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag’s date night spot when they were first dating on The Hills, or maybe you don’t.

The other is a terrific Oaxacan place called Guelaguetza, which is located in Koreatown. I had no idea what Mole was until I stumbled upon that place a few years back when my wife and I were out there looking for good Mexican food before going to a Dodgers game.

Three work trips to LA since late July, zero stops at Don Antonio’s and Guelaguetza combined. That’s on me.

Q: “Is there anything more dysfunctional than our legislative branch of government right now?” -- @benwilkinson

A: Here is a short list of things more dysfunctional than our legislative branch right now. For context, this is off the cuff, no thinking about it, and I’m writing this just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Gerrit Cole. The Jets offensive line. Too much of Zach Wilson’s decision-making. Kyrie Irving’s PR team. Kanye West’s Donda Academy. The Knicks front office for all of the bulk of the 2000s and 2010s. The car rental facility at LAX.

Good stuff, I needed that laugh.