If the season were to end today, Utah most likely would earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. For how the season began, with a loss to D-II Southwest Baptist, it would prove to be a remarkable turnaround. However, the season is still not complete and though Utah is sitting in prime position, a slipup could ruin any hope of playing in the Big Dance.
So what does Utah have to do to get there for the first time in four seasons? Well they could win out and assure themselves of not only a spot in the tournament, but a decent seed. Though ideal, that seems rather unlikely, especially with road games against BYU and New Mexico left on the schedule.
The next-best option, then, would be to win the remainder of the home games, defeat Colorado State, Wyoming and TCU on the road and hopefully beat an improving Lobo team in The Pit. This is very doable, but would require consistent play for the rest of the season. Can the Utes do that? Well they appear to be playing more consistent every day, winning 8 of their last 11 games and if they have a similar stretch to end the season, the above scenario is likely.
Now the two biggest road concerns for Utah are the Lobos and Frogs. TCU's recent struggles have knocked them down a peg, however, they have given the Utes recent trouble and this is will probably be a game Utah should win that they could actually lose. A loss there, unless it could be made up against BYU in Provo, would damage their shot at the tournament.
Looking at the schedule, I believe these are games Utah must win to have any chance of making the NCAAs.
Lose this game, since it's at home, and you're most likely looking at less than 20-wins. That won't cut it.
I mentioned the importance of this game above.
The Cowboys are terrible and even though Laramie can be a tough place to play, it shouldn't excuse a loss here.
San Diego State
Every home game is a must-win.
See Air Force & SDSU.
See Air Force, SDSU @ UNLV
Now this is where it gets a bit tricky, because I think the Utes can absorb losses to BYU and New Mexico, though in varying degrees. The Lobos are worse than the Cougars, so not only would a loss there not look good, it's a winnable game. Defeating BYU down in Provo, though, is fairly improbable, at least I believe that to be the case. It doesn't mean it can't happen, but given how the rivalry has gone lately, it's not much of a stretch to put this as a loss.
If the Utes win every must-win game I mentioned above and then lost to New Mexico & BYU, they would finish the regular season with 21-wins. That just might be enough to get them in, but it will be very close. Yet if the Utes were to win a game or two in the conference tournament, it would almost assure them a spot, since their RPI would still be in the 30s.
If Utah were to lose to BYU and then beat New Mexico, while winning the rest of the must-win games, that would put them at 22-wins and I don't see how they are kept out, even if they lose in the first round of the conference tournament, though I wouldn't put anything past the selection committee.
Of course, things could get more complicated. Let's say Utah loses on the road to TCU or maybe drops a home game against UNLV, that would mean the road game against New Mexico would be for the season. A loss there and it's very unlikely, outside of a deep conference tournament run, the Utes see the NCAA Tournament.
So there you have it, the path to the NCAAs. There are a lot of options for Utah, but it all boils down to taking care of business in games they shouldn't lose. Last season, they struggled down the stretch in those games, losing to TCU and Wyoming on the road and while those losses probably didn't keep them out of the tournament, it's very likely they were the difference between playing in the NIT and the CBI. Well this time, the final stretch of the season will prove to be the difference between playing in the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.