The TribUte is a weekly newsletter covering Utah athletics. Subscribe here.
The University of Utah men’s basketball team was scheduled to board a charter bound for Columbia, Mo., on Friday afternoon ahead of a matchup with the University of Missouri on Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m., SEC Network).
That simple fact is notable because not every college basketball team is as lucky right now.
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic drastically interrupted the season, cases are up again, the Omicron variant is making its way through the United States, and all of it is again threatening the normalcy of a season.
On Thursday alone, a high-profile matchup between Ohio State and Kentucky on Saturday in Las Vegas was called off as the Buckeyes deal with COVID troubles. Same with another attractive Saturday neutral-court matchup at Madison Square Garden between Seton Hall and Iona. UCLA’s COVID problems cost it a game vs. Alabama State on Wednesday. The Bruins’ game with North Carolina, originally slated as part of a doubleheader with Ohio State-Kentucky in Vegas, was called off on Friday morning, by which point no fewer than 10 Division I teams had had games canceled or were on a COVID pause.
In a throwback to last season, when games were sometimes hastily arranged on short notice, Kentucky will now play North Carolina Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., CBS).
None of this is lost on Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith, who says he addressed the growing COVID-19 and Omicron variant troubles with his team after it beat Manhattan College last Saturday at the Huntsman Center. Smith’s entire program, not just the players, but everyone associated with the program, is fully vaccinated. Furthermore, Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday that Utah’s director of athletic training, Trevor Jameson, has arranged for booster shots to be administered within the next week for anyone that wants them.
“We talked to our guys after that win about what is going on in our country, whether it’s NFL teams, NBA teams, you look at college basketball, what’s going on, and the numbers are going up,” Smith said. “We told our guys, there’s no way to fully stop it, you don’t know how you’re going to get it, but be cognizant of what is going on right now and try to be diligent about it.
“Live your life, but just be cognizant and aware of what is going on. You try to be careful in that respect.”
Just as cancellations and postponements were a near daily occurrence in college basketball a year ago, this situation now bears watching after this week’s high-profile cancellations.
Beyond Saturday at Missouri, Utah is home to Fresno State on Tuesday before Pac-12-play resumes on Dec. 30 at Oregon State and Jan. 1 at Oregon.
What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise
• A week ago in this space, we laid out the legitimate candidates for Utah football’s best team ever, while offering readers to vote. The results of that vote are below.
I personally thought it boiled down to 2008 and 2021, and the majority of voters agreed. I think there is a case to be made for 2021 even if these Utes lose the Rose Bowl, but beating Ohio State on New Year’s Day should end the debate in my opinion.
• A certain Pac-12 Networks analyst you’re all well-versed with has said a number of times this week that if Utah wins the Rose Bowl, it will open 2022 ranked in the top 5. Of course, that does not take into account who might come back and who else might leave. If certain player decisions break in Utah’s favor, I wouldn’t argue with a top-10, top-12 preseason ranking. A top-5 ranking feels overly ambitious.
• Ohio State’s wide receivers (if some or all of them don’t opt out) vs. Utah’s young, inexperienced, thin secondary. That’s the matchup that’s been on my mind for the last two weeks.