Runnin' Utes enter Pac-12 play rolling

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Can the program continue its best start in a decade against a top-ten Oregon Ducks team?

The good news: Utah basketball enters conference play with an 11-1 record - their best start in over a decade.

The bad news: Utah basketball has played all of two decent teams, splitting both games.

While the Runnin' Utes have run roughshod over its preseason schedule, it is a schedule that ranks 342nd in the nation. Only seven teams have played a worse schedule. That's not good and a direct result of this year's impressive start.

For as impressive as it has looked, let's be honest, no one quite knows how good this year's team is. Certainly their game Saturday against St. Katherine, one they won 124-51, didn't show us what they're capable of doing. Except to beat up on overmatched opponents.

Of course, that changes this week. The schedule is no longer going to be easy for the Utes. In fact, there is no tougher way to kick off conference play than against the 10th ranked team in the nation. It's going to be an absolute test for a young program still trying to find its identity this season.

This is when things get real.

Finally.

So, what should we expect as conference play approaches?

I'm not under any illusions this year's team will somehow contend for the Pac-12 title. They may be good enough to upset Oregon Thursday, and maybe Arizona in a couple months, but I don't foresee them winning enough to be as good as those two teams. Which means, the success of this season will be established by their ability to finish somewhere in the conference's middle.

That's not going to be easy, though. Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, Cal and even USC are tough opponents that will challenge their position the entire season. Even Washington, Washington State and Oregon State are capable of making the leap toward the middle of the conference. That means there won't be any gimmies and every game is going to have a major impact on where this team finishes.

Last year's team, which won five conference games, climbed out of the cellar to finish 10th. It wasn't a huge leap over their 11th place finish the year before, but it was progress. This year's team was picked to finish 9th by the media, but even if the Utes match those expectations, it may not necessarily be their standing in conference that matters and instead how many Pac-12 wins they produce.

With how deep this year's conference is, if they finish 9-9 in conference play, and still finish 9th, as Arizona State did last year, I think we'd be satisfied with the results - as it would mean Utah finished the regular season 20-10 and would almost certainly be assured at least a berth in the NIT. They then would be able to bolster their tournament chances with a strong performance in the Pac-12 tournament. But even if they were passed over for the Big Dance, it would still be a vast improvement over last year's somewhat disappointing 15-18 record.

Anything better than that and you're almost certainly looking at a tournament appearance - even with Utah's soft preseason schedule.

So, really, I think that should be our expectation: nine conference wins.  With how young this team is, and their success in the preseason, a .500 conference record would be solid progression for the program.

But that also means anything less than .500 in Pac-12 play could prove disappointing - especially if it ends with no postseason tournament bid.

Hopefully this team is ready to take the next step. I am excited for Thursday because for Utah, it feels like the first legitimately important Pac-12 game (and one of the first important games in a long, long time). I want that place rocking and hopefully the Utes can do to the Ducks as they did to BYU a couple weeks ago.

To start conference play 1-0, with a win over a top-ten team, would be absolutely amazing.

Especially with how close Utah came to a 2-0 conference start last year.

Regardless of what's in store for the Runnin' Utes, it's clear excitement is returning again to the program. Fans are optimistic and that ain't bad.

Now let's keep it going.

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