USA TODAY Sports
Utah basketball is not back and probably won't be back for quite a while.
We all desperately want a successful basketball program. It's something that has eluded Utah, at least consistently, since the Rick Majerus days. It's not easy, especially for fans who grew up with dominant teams that easily won 20 games a year and routinely made noise in the NCAA Tournament. Unlike football, no matter what era of Utah basketball you were introduced to, chances are, you saw some fairly good teams play at the Huntsman Center (or, in some cases, the Nielsen Fieldhouse). It's just a prolonged stretch of fantastic teams that made two NCAA Final Fours in the 60s under Jack Gardner, celebrated four Sweet Sixteens with Jerry Pimm ... and eventually played for it all during the height of the Rick Majerus era. That's a stretch of 44 years where the Runnin' Utes rarely put together a string of bad seasons.
When they did, when Utah slumped and missed the tournament or didn't go anywhere in the WAC, the program put an abrupt end to it. Lynn Archibald, just a year removed from three-straight postseason berths, was fired after a 16-17 season. At the time of his firing, that felt like the bottom and it was - as Majerus would come in and guide the program through its best stretch in history.
The point is, on a historical scale, the Runnin' Utes were rarely down ... and never out. It wasn't like the other WAC/Mountain West programs that would go through stretches of success, but then would always struggle sustaining it. Utah had no problem sustaining it. Not through Vadal Peterson, Jack Gardner, Bill Foster, Jerry Pimm or Rick Majerus. Sure, there were down seasons, bad play and losing records, but it never engrossed the entire program.
So, it's hard for many fans today to accept just how bad things have gotten. Let's be honest, Utah basketball hasn't been relevant, really, since the 2004-'05 season - essentially eight years ago. That is, most assuredly, the worst eight-year stretch in modern program history. Sure, Jim Boylen managed to get Utah to the NCAA Tournament in 2009, just four years after their last appearance, but nothing since and even that performance ended with a thud - as the Runnin' Utes lost as a fifth seed to Arizona.
Now, and I hate saying this, Utah finds itself in the same position as those programs I just spoke about. You know, the ones whose success is often limited and fleeting. That's a scary indication of where we're at and how far we've fallen. Today, nearly a decade after Majerus resigned, the program has eroded so badly that the idea of making the NCAA Tournament right now appears as distant as the next galaxy.
When Utah opened this season with a fairly successful 8-4 record and then battled Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA down to the wire, though ultimately losing all three, I noticed some fans declare our return to the magical kingdom of college basketball relevancy. Because we were competitive in losses, especially to the number three team in the land on their home court, somehow we had fought back the advances of bad and progressed into something resembling good.
Unfortunately, as it's felt often since the last decent run in the NCAA Tournament, that talk was premature. Utah is not back and any fan who says they're back is doing so solely because of wishful thinking. They want to believe that all the struggles are gone and that while we may lose, we'll lose competitively and then one day, and it will be sudden, the light will flip on and we'll be really good again.
I'm not saying that day won't come, because I do believe it will. But it's not here yet. The USC game taught us just how far we are from being good and the only way Utah fans can definitively state that Utah basketball is back is if the program is good again. Well we aren't good. Right now, we're fighting for average and then hopefully good. What happens, though, is that the battle for average is often dominated with bad results and regression that is frustrating.
So, this season has never been about Utah basketball being back, even though we might have wanted it and pined for it. Instead, this season has always been about just becoming average and hoping that it's enough to become good down the line. Right now, that is the current battle because for so long, since Ray Giacoletti's first season, really, Utah has either been bad or average - with 2009's team the only semblance of good between the Sweet Sixteen run and the disappointing loss to the Trojans Saturday night. Currently, that is our lot in life and the last two seasons, the ending of the Boylen era and the beginning of Larry Krystkowiak's, we've been historically bad. So the battle is not necessarily how far you advance, but rather how long you go without shooting yourself in the foot.
Saturday, we shot ourselves in the foot and that set us back. The only way we'll be good again is when we don't shoot ourselves in the foot and at that point, and only at that point, we can advance beyond our current state ... and then win the war.
But we're not winning the war this season. It's just not going to happen. That doesn't mean, though, we give up the fight. You just have to reframe that fight and that's what we've got to do. No more proclaiming that Utah's back - not until, you know, we're actually back. Instead, victory is not necessarily whether they're contending for the postseason ... but rather contending for the middle of the PAC and a conference record within striking distance of .500.
That's an average team and that's where we need to set our expectations.
I know it's hard investing in an idea that is so mediocre, but unless it's coaching, and I don't think it is, no quick change is going to make us good. Only time and experience and weathering the storm will do that.
Sadly, the wait won't be fun ... but it will be necessary.