Here are BYU, Utah State and Utah’s paths to the NCAA Tournament

The two surprise programs are best positioned to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. A third has work to do in the final weeks of the season.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Craig Smith as Utah hosts Bellarmine, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

It was only a few months ago the college basketball world was collectively pre-writing the obituary for Utah State’s and BYU’s season.

In Logan, first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle was plotting how he’d survive with a roster returning no points, no starters and less than 0.01% of the minutes played from the year before. By the middle of June, he was still hosting recruits looking for his final starter.

In Provo, the situation was also tense. Mark Pope was diagnosing what went wrong during a 7-9 West Coast Conference season and staring down his first year in the Big 12. One of his star transfers, Samford guard Ques Glover, left the team two weeks before their international trip to Italy and Croatia. It was no shock BYU landed 13th on the Big 12 preseason poll.

Yet as March comes into focus, these two programs are best positioned to go to the NCAA Tournament. It would be the first time in three years Utah has two teams playing in March.

But they aren’t locks just yet. There will be jostling for seeding and the final spots in the field. Plus, Utah will be lurking trying to make a final push on the bubble.

Here is a breakdown of each team’s situations, and their realistic path to the dance.


Record entering the week: 18-7

Projected seed: 5-9 seed

After continuously coming up short against Gonzaga in the WCC, Pope reimagined his roster over the last two years to go all-in on an analytics-driven, 3-point-heavy approach. It had a higher ceiling, Pope reasoned, and shooting 35 threes a night could mask other deficiencies BYU had in terms of athleticism.

His bet paid off this year, with his group surprisingly nearing 20 wins and sitting as a near-lock for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2021. With its style of play, BYU is a computer’s darling — rising inside the top 10 in KenPom and in the top 15 in NET.

Still, the Cougars’ resume has flaws and it’s possible the computers are artificially high on Pope’s squad.

They are currently 3-5 in Quad One games and 3-2 in Quad Two games. They haven’t played particularly well on the road, going 2-5. A loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater Saturday — the worst team in the Big 12 — was their biggest blemish this season.

It’s partly why, despite being in the top 16 in almost every metric, BYU was not announced as a top 16 seed last weekend when the committee’s February seedings were released.

“I think they’re in pretty good shape,” Erick Smith, a college sports editor and bracketologist for USA Today, said. “They have beat Iowa State. They have held their home court for the most part. But I do think, in terms of the NET, they’re a bit overrated in that regard.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Pope as BYU hosts University of Central Florida, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

BYU was projected around a five- or six-seed before the loss to Oklahoma State. Now, BYU could start sliding back to the seven-seed range, according to Smith.

The remainder of BYU’s schedule is not easy. Baylor comes to Provo this week and the Cougars have trips to Kansas and Iowa State (the top two teams in the league). TCU and Oklahoma State at home should be wins.

Barring a complete meltdown, Smith thinks the floor for BYU is the eight-nine game.

One more note on the Cougars should be about geography. Salt Lake City is hosting some of the first- and second-round games. Some projections have BYU playing at the Delta Center — effectively a home game.

But in order for BYU to get geographical preference, Smith thinks it’d likely have to be a top-three seed. The top seeds get some home court advantage, and the rest get kicked around to the next closest location.

Right now, Salt Lake could see Arizona (a projected No. 1 seed that has Utah as its closest regional location). Kansas or Creighton could be in play too (a lower seed playing in its second-closest location next to Omaha). The committee could kick BYU elsewhere rather than Salt Lake. It looks more likely now after a loss to OSU.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Jaxson Robinson (2) celebrates a three-pointer as BYU hosts University of Central Florida, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

Utah State

Record entering the week: 21-5

Projected seed: 6-to-11 seed

Even Sprinkle didn’t believe this team would be nearing an NCAA Tournament berth at this stage in the year. Playing in a deep Mountain West Conference, the Aggies are threatening to win the league and are already inching toward another 25-win season.

For context, New Mexico State lost a similar amount of production to USU. The Lobos are 11-15 this year. So what Sprinkle has done is nothing short of remarkable.

At the moment, Utah State is projected around a six-seed in the tournament. Barring a complete collapse, the Aggies should hear their name called on Selection Sunday. For now, it is about seeding.

With the Aggies remaining schedule, they still see San Diego State and New Mexico (the top two Mountain West teams). They just lost to Colorado State on the road. Smith thinks they could lose all three of those games and still get in.

“If they went like 3-4, let’s say, and they lost the Colorado State, SDSU and they lost to New Mexico. I think they’d be on the bubble but I think they’d be in,” he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies center Isaac Johnson (20) as Utah State faces San Francisco, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.

In that event, USU would likely drop down to a 10- or 11-seed. Smith said it could depend on how competitive Utah State is, and if the losses are close. Another factor could be how the Aggies fare in the conference tournament.

If they fall in the regular season and go out early, it could make things tight. But if they win the regular-season conference championship and have an early exit, Smith sees no damage done. A regular-season crown insulates against anything that goes on in Vegas.

“It’s really hard to predict the value of a conference tournament,” Smith said. “I think you can see a reticence to boost up teams that win the conference tournament.”

Look at Duke last year. It won the ACC tournament, but stayed a five-seed because of its regular season body of work.

Overall, the Mountain West could get as many as six teams in (even though it’s unlikely). Utah State and San Diego State are in the best position.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Sprinkle as Utah State faces San Francisco, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.


Record entering the week: 16-10

Projected seed: Bubble

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Utah is falling apart at the end of the season and is on the outside looking in.

The Utes have lost five of their last seven games and have just one road win in conference since January 2023.

Those aren’t the marks of an NCAA Tournament team, which is why most projections now have them on the last four out.

A strong non-conference resume and a good start to the Pac-12 gave Utah a fighting chance. The Utes beat BYU and went into Moraga and took down St. Mary’s. A Thanksgiving tournament win over Wake Forest is aging well, too.

But the Utes are now watching how many spots will be available in the field. If, for example, a strong team from a traditional one-bid league does not win the conference tournament and gets an at-large bid, that eats up a spot for Utah.

Grand Canyon is a team to watch out of the WAC that could steal an at-large spot.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) tries to regain control of the ball in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Arizona Wildcats at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

“There’s a decent amount of teams that potentially could be at-large qualifiers from the smaller leagues,” Smith said. “And that costs teams in the bigger leagues on the bubble.”

A win against UCLA on Sunday in Los Angeles boosted the resume slightly. Utah has missed out on several chances to get high-end wins (think Arizona) that would mitigate some of its head-scratching losses.

But the main objective has to be taking care of a weaker schedule the rest of the way. A run in the Pac-12 tournament wouldn’t hurt, either.