Can the Runnin’ Utes still get to the NCAA Tournament? Here’s what bracketologists say.

Utah is 16-9 overall, but does not have enough of the wins the NCAA Tournament selection committee covets.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah head coach Craig Smith, left, argues with a referee during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Stanford, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Whatever the reasonable expectations were this winter for the University of Utah men’s basketball team, the Runnin’ Utes have likely exceeded them.

Coming off an 11-20 first season under Craig Smith, in which it went 4-16 in the Pac-12, Utah is currently 16-9 overall and 9-5 in the Pac-12 with six regular-season games to play. On the surface, those overall and conference marks are solid, but are they enough to get the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016?

At this point, it would seem unlikely, but not entirely out of the question just yet. Short of the NCAA Tournament, would the NIT suffice in a season that wasn’t expected to include the postseason in any fashion?

What does Utah have to do to reach the NCAA Tournament?

A lot.

But first, a quick explainer.

The NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) is the college sports governing body’s primary vehicle for evaluating teams. The NET takes into account winning percentage, game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses. All Division I teams are labeled as Quadrants 1-4, which can and will change over the course of a season. Beating a Quad 1 team is considered a “good win,” while losing to a Quad 4 team is considered a “bad loss.” Stacking Quad 1 wins is good for a resume, losing to Quads 3 and 4 is bad for a resume.

Following Sunday evening’s 61-46 win over Cal, Utah woke up Monday morning with a NET of 56, while authoritative stats-driven website KenPom.com has the Utes rated at No. 55. While not stellar, those metrics are considered at this point to be manageable.

But here’s the problem: Utah has just one Quad 1 win, back on Dec. 1 against then-No. 4 Arizona, and is just 3-8 vs. Quads 1 and 2 combined. The fact the Utes are 13-1 against Quads 3 and 4 is offset by the lack of quality wins at the moment.

“Of my 14 teams that are on the bubble but are out of the field, Utah sits at 13th,” Tim Krueger, a Bracketologist for Stadium, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday evening following the win over Cal. “The record is good, the out-of-conference strength of schedule might be an issue, but that’s baked into the metrics. The computer doesn’t hate them. A NET of 56, predictives say 56, but three wins in the top two quads, one win vs. the top 75 of the NET. That’s the big killer.

They’ve played seven teams in the lower 20% of the NET. That doesn’t help, either.”

Much of Utah’s non-conference schedule was soft, but that’s not to say the Utes didn’t have resume opportunities. Pre-New Year’s losses to Mississippi State on a neutral floor in Florida, at BYU, and vs. TCU on a neutral floor at Vivint Arena would have accounted for two Quad 1 wins and a Quad 2 win. If the Utes had gotten even two of those three with nothing else changing this season, things likely look different right now with the stretch run coming.

“If they win those games, they would have leap-frogged a bunch of teams already,” Krueger said. “They would not be in the field, but they would be in a good position.”

That’s the bad news, but for the eternal optimists within the fan base, there is some good news.

Beginning Saturday night vs. Colorado at the Huntsman Center, Utah’s six remaining regular-season games currently consist of two Quad 2 opportunities vs. the Buffaloes bookending four Quad 1 chances at Arizona and Arizona State, and vs. UCLA and USC.

Given the state of Utah’s resume, the Utes are going to need something monstrous over the final six games in order to go to the Pac-12 Tournament with any legitimate chances at an at-large bid.

“That’s a huge opportunity, but you have to at least go 4-2 and at that point, you’re alive for sure,” Bleacher Report Bracketologist Kerry Miller told The Tribune. “They’re fine in the NET, predictives are good, they just have to get the resume up to snuff. The only bad loss was Stanford (a Quad 3 loss last week), even Sam Houston (a Quad 2 loss in November) wasn’t that bad.

“You go 4-2 down the stretch, you’re 7-10 against Quads 1 and 2, it’s doable. Sure, there is some hope, but probably not a ton of it.”

Of course, beyond all these possibilities and permutations, the winner of the Pac-12 Tournament, which runs March 8-11 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, receives the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Utes currently sit fourth in the Pac-12. The top-4 seeds receive Pac-12 Tournament byes directly to the quarterfinals on March 9.

What about the NIT?

Utah might be well off the NCAA Tournament bubble, but as far as the NIT goes, it is almost inconceivable at this point that it would get left out.

“They’re pretty safe I would say, I don’t think there’s a ton of downside left on the schedule right now,” said John Templon, an independent New York City-based journalist, who has earned a reputation in recent years for his NIT bracketology work. “The remaining games are hard, but most of them are against NCAA Tournament or NIT teams, so they’re in good position. Their NET and quality wins are in line with what NIT teams tend to be. Nobody thinks they’re an NCAA Tournament team.”

To Templon’s point, the fact Utah has nothing left in the regular season except Quad 1 and 2 teams means there are no more opportunities for bad losses against Quads 3 and 4. Its 13-1 mark against Quads 3 and 4 is likely to stand up as a major positive factor, no matter how the Utes close things out.

With the NCAA running the NIT, it uses a similar process to select and seed the latter, but there is one wrinkle that could affect the Utes.

Teams that win regular-season championships gain automatic bids to the NIT in case they don’t win their respective conference tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament. This is an annual storyline, especially in low and the majority of mid-major conferences, which often send their conference tournament champion and no one else to the field of 68.

For example, Mark Madsen-coached Utah Valley is the current WAC leader with seven regular-season games to play. If the Wolverines win the WAC regular-season crown, then lose in the WAC Tournament, they are still guaranteed a spot in the NIT.

The more regular-season champions that lose in conference tournaments, the more automatic bids take up NIT spots that might regularly be filled by at-large teams like Utah. A combination of the Utes potentially faltering badly down the stretch, plus a slew of low and mid-major No. 1 seeds going down in conference tournaments could make things dicey NIT-wise for the Utes.

Utah’s win over Cal on Sunday helped the cause. Objectively, if the Utes haven’t already secured an NIT bid on paper, they are probably just one more win away from doing so. In order to secure a top-4 NIT seed and at least one home game in the field of 32, it would likely take at least two more wins, per Templon, who is projecting between 10-12 automatic bids, which would be a high number for a given year.

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