With Utah now entering the meat of their conference schedule, attention should slowly turn from football to basketball. Though the Utes aren't perfect and the program is still trying to find its footing, the season is slowly developing and things appear to be heading in the right direction, even with last Saturday's loss to San Diego State.
The Utes did bounce back Wednesday, dominating Air Force on the road and that game may prove to be the turning point for the season and with that victory, Utah has at least temporarily positioned itself in the Mountain West title hunt. Which leads me to these questions...
Can Utah win the Mountain West?
Probably not. While they sit tied for second, the BYU Cougars have shown to be the class of this league at the moment and until Utah can consistently win on the road, a championship is unlikely. Fortunately for Utah's case, the conference isn't great, which means they should be able to pick up some pretty good road wins. Unfortunately for Utah, they've got to catch the Cougars and most likely UNLV and San Diego State as the season progresses and you'll be hard pressed to find many losses for the Cougars, Aztecs and Rebels.
Can Utah finish second?
This is actually doable, but it will require near-flawless play from the Utes in much of their games. Picking up a road win this early is huge because it helps build confidence, but also gives the team one less road game down the stretch, leaving a more favorable schedule as the season progresses.
To reach second, the Utes will probably need to play close to perfect at home. Any slipup there and their case becomes that much more difficult. Looking at the schedule, there is no home game they should lose. But we know inconsistency is still an issue, so it's probable the Utes lose at least twice at home in the conference season. To reach second, they will need to pick up some road games and their best bets are as followed:
Playing at New Mexico is always tough, but the Lobos have looked less than impressive on their home floor this season. That is most likely a swing game, with UNLV and BYU working out to be probable losses. If the Utes play to their potential, especially on the road, Utah could be looking at a 4-4 road record, which would be a huge improvement over last year's 2-6 conference road record. But would it be good enough for second in the conference? Well all would depend on how Utah did at home.
Right now, Utah has only lost two home games this season, the opener against Southwest Baptist and a last second defeat to Cal. Two more conference losses at home added to their four on the road and you are looking at six losses in conference play. That won't be good enough for second place, but maybe winning in The Pit and then managing only one loss at the Huntsman would put Utah in competition for that second spot.
So why is that second spot so important? Well...
Can Utah make the NCAA Tournament?
Finishing second, with an RPI that most likely would be top-40, could get Utah a tournament berth. But that is an uphill battle and as I said earlier, they would need to play pretty damn well for the rest of the season to attain that spot in the standings. Doing so would most likely give them a conference record of 12-4 and an overall record of 21-9, which could be good enough for an at-large berth.
I'm not sure it will happen and if I were a bettor, I'd put Utah's conference record at about 10-6, which would be a huge improvement over last year and good enough to get into the NIT, but short of the NCAAs. I say this because Utah has yet to show me they're capable of putting together a winning streak necessary to go 10-3 the rest of the way.
If they do, though, it'll be well worth being wrong.