Utah and USC set for first-round showdown

Douglas C. Pizac-USA Today Sports

The Utes and Trojans will play Wednesday night in Las Vegas.

I am excited for this year's conference tournament. A year ago, I didn't think Utah had a prayer to win the first game, let alone the whole thing, and while I don't expect a tournament victory this go around, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility they move on to the second round. Unfortunately, while they finished the season on a two-game win streak and grabbed some much needed momentum heading into Vegas, they face an opponent who they do not match-up well with and one who coasted to a victory over the Utes earlier in the season.

Utah won't be favorites - and they wouldn't have been in any of their other potential games. But at least had they played Washington, they would have the confidence knowing this was a team they already defeated. Not the Trojans. When the two met in Salt Lake back in January, USC easily won 76-59 ... and then promptly fired their head coach. Since Kevin O'Neill's firing, however, the program has done surprisingly well - winning seven of their final thirteen games. It wasn't a dramatic change, but under Bob Cantu, the interim head coach, they went from a potential last-place finish, like last year's team, and surged to ... 9th. But the difference between the Trojans, who finished 9-9, and Utah, who is in that 10th spot, is pretty stark.

So, USC does enter this game with an 'I'd take it' .500 conference record, along with some impressive wins over Arizona, Stanford and UCLA - three teams that Utah couldn't beat this season. That means they're no slouch of a team and if they play even half as well as they did the first time they took on the Utes, this might very well prove to be an quick one-and-done trip to Vegas for Utah.

But there is hope. The Trojans have sputtered a bit down the stretch and enter the tournament losers of their last two - including games against Washington State and Washington. The Huskies Utah beat and the Cougars, though they had a late push at the end, finished tied with Oregon State for last place. They're also working on their fourth loss in six games. This team doesn't have much momentum.

Hopefully this Wednesday is a better game for the Utes because it would be exciting to pick up at least one victory in the conference tournament. They say March Madness is magical and home of the upsets - well nothing would be bigger than Utah somehow pushing ahead toward the final round of the conference tourney.

Will happen? Probably not. In fact, the Utes certainly stand a better chance of losing in the first round than winning the whole thing ... but until that happens, we can dream. And, unlike last year, I'm at least optimistic something could happen in Vegas ... and isn't that what the city is all about? Here's to a lucky roll of the dice.

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