Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Utah opens a two-game home stand against Oregon State tonight.
I think it's pretty clear Utah basketball has a regressed a lot the second half of the season and it's left the program teetering on yet another very disappointing Pac-12 finish. While they've matched last year's total conference wins, the fact they're still stuck on three is a bit concerning when you consider they reached that third win nearly a month ago. Since, though, it's been a mess of losses - many of which proved rarely competitive.
Now the Runnin' Utes enter the final two games of the regular season in dire need of a victory to show supposed improvement in conference play. While I doubt anyone would ever doubt this year's team is better than last, I think most, at the start of this whole adventure back in November, would have expected at least a couple more conference wins - especially when they took BYU, Arizona State and Arizona down to the wire on the road. But that feels like an entirely different ball club than what Utah has turned into as of late and it's put the program in a bad position when they need momentum the most.
Do I think Utah will get that fourth Pac-12 win? Yes. I might be disillusioned by my optimism, but I actually think the Utes can split their next two games ... if not win 'em both. Sure, it'll take a great effort against a team they've yet to beat under Larry Krystkowiak (and struggled with earlier in the season) and another who's contending for the Pac-12 - but I also sense urgency knowing this is it and for the seniors who will never play with UTAH across their chest again, these two games have to mean something.
Does Jason Washburn want to go out with back-to-back three-win conference seasons?
But even more importantly, I sense the coaching staff realizes this team is dangerously close to undoing every good thing they set out to establish this season. I touched on this in my Stanford post-game - a slow rebuild can quickly implode on itself. They're generally not sustainable. Utah, whether fans accept it or not, will probably have to make a huge leap next season and, for the coaching staff, the possibility of entering that season on a seven-game slide has be worrisome. It worries me.
Even though the Utes should beat Oregon State, who's equally bad this season, I wouldn't be surprised if their fourth win came against the better Ducks. Even so, it'd be nice to win tonight because that could set up for a pretty good finish that maybe leaves Utah winners of three-straight before the inevitable conference tournament loss. Even if they don't get anywhere in Vegas later this month, a 5-13 conference record will look a helluva lot better than 3-15.