Runnin’ Utes will get a third chance at Washington, as Pac-12 basketball tournament begins

Craig Smith’s team has been down on its luck this season, but dreams of making some noise in Las Vegas

(Jeff Chiu | AP) Utah coach Craig Smith celebrates after Utah scored against California during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.

Arizona, UCLA and USC are going to the NCAA Tournament next week.

That much is clear as the Pac-12 Tournament commences Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with four first-round games. Those three programs — the three best the conference has had to offer for the entirety of the season — are locks for the field of 68.

For the other nine teams, this week was always billed for them. No matter how they performed over the last four months, three or four good days in Vegas can yield a tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The University of Utah is the No. 11 seed at the Pac-12 Tournament, ready for a first-round matchup late Wednesday night vs. sixth-seeded Washington (9:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Head coach Craig Smith may be leading the Utes into the postseason for the first time, but he is no stranger to conference tournaments. Smith has been to tournament finals each of the last four seasons, three in the Mountain West with Utah State (including wins in 2019 and 2020) and the 2018 Summit League title game with South Dakota.

That much success leads to at least one piece of advice that Smith can bring to his team, which was set to travel to Las Vegas late Monday afternoon: If you’re going to win three, or even four games in as many days, you have to start with one.

“Everybody wants to think about winning the whole tournament, but the bottom line is, you have to win the first game,” Smith said this week. “Find a way to win that first game. We’re not thinking about USC, or UCLA, or any of those teams. We’re completely locked into this.”

Added second-year freshman point guard Rollie Worster: “Obviously, everyone’s going to have a little bit of nerves going into the first game of a big tournament. We need to make some noise obviously, but we have to go in, play our game, and be super-competitive. I think that’s the biggest key. I think we can find some success if we do that.”

Getting the first game in Las Vegas will require Utah beating a Huskies team it has already lost to twice in a pair of competitive regular-season meetings.

On Jan. 6 at the Huntsman Center, the Utes led by 14 early in the second half, only to give all of it back in a 74-68 loss. It would be their third in a row as part of what became a season-altering 10-game losing streak. The 10th loss in that streak was a 77-73 double-overtime decision to Washington on Jan. 29 in Seattle.

Utah may not be fully concerned with the third-seeded Trojans, but there is at least some level of planning already taking place because if the Utes win on Wednesday, they draw the Trojans late Thursday evening off a quick turnaround.

The bad news is the quick turnaround with a win Wednesday. The good news is, at least Utah already knows who it would be facing and the staff can begin preparations immediately late Wednesday night.

“Everything would be prepared, the film is ready and it would be anyway, but at least you’re not shuffling around not knowing you’re going to be playing,” Smith said. “It’s a fast turnaround when you have hopefully four games in four days and your first one is the late one. We’d be prepared to watch some personnel that night, get some sleep, then do our normal deal with film, walkthrough and go from there.

“It takes what it takes to be successful, and we relish in that.”

Pac-12 Tournament schedule

Wednesday, first round

No. 8 Arizona State vs. No. 9 Stanford, 1 p.m.

No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Oregon State, 3:30 p.m.

No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 10 Cal, 7 p.m.

No. 6 Washington vs. No. 11 Utah, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, quarterfinals

No. 1 Arizona vs. Arizona State/Stanford, 1 p.m.

No. 4 Colorado vs. Oregon/Oregon State, 3:30 p.m.

No. 2 UCLA vs. Washington State/Cal, 7 p.m.

No. 3 USC vs. Washington/Utah, 9:30 p.m.

Friday, semifinals

TBD, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, championship game

TBD, 7 p.m.