Utah's wins over USC and UCLA salvaged a quickly deteriorating season and offers hope that, a week ago, didn't necessarily seem to be there. But for that hope to be realized, the Runnin' Utes are still going to have to do something they've done little of the past few years - win on the road.
These next three games, road ones against Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado, has the potential to define Utah's place in the conference and help bolster their push for a return to the postseason after a five year absence. Whether that is the NCAA Tournament or the NIT will certainly come down to their ability to fully win on the road and continue to take care of business at home.
This past week, they did just that - upending a struggling USC squad and then pulling the mild upset over the UCLA Bruins - who, a few nights earlier, had defeated Colorado in Boulder. The win over UCLA is certainly the best of the Larry Krystkowiak era (though, the Oregon win last year was pretty damn good too) and something that hopefully acts as a confidence springboard to further success the remainder of 2014.
Certainly it helped Utah regain control of their season, something they sorely needed, and now the focus once again shifts to building their resume.
But it remains to be seen if this team can play consistently enough on the road to get to the point where they are a legitimate NCAA or NIT team. I don't anticipate the team to win out at home, especially with Arizona coming to Salt Lake, so, to get to the needed wins to claim a spot in the NCAAs or NIT will require at least one, maybe two, wins on the road. That's no easy task for a team that has only managed to win once ever in Pac-12 play - last year, against Washington.
Their best chance is this Thursday against Arizona State. The Sun Devils, after starting the season with a respectable preseason record, have slipped since Pac-12 play began - getting rocked by Washington, UCLA and Arizona (the latter which resulted in a 91-68 pounding). They're beatable. But with how Utah has played on the road, even if they've contested each game, it's hard to feel confident enough to foresee a win. If they leave Tempe for Tucson 3-4 in Pac-12 play, it's likely they return to Salt Lake 3-6 and again needing wins during their home stand to revive their postseason hopes.
Ultimately, I still believe the NCAAs are out of Utah's reach. Until they upset Arizona, or somehow manage to win two of their next three road games (or all), it's probably not happening this year. Still, they've played their way back into the NIT, which, if you'll remember, I felt could have been lost with the Wazzu defeat. Not anymore.
But they need to keep it going. This season is far from over, and though UCLA was a great win, they can't get complacent and need to realize it was just a start. The next step is winning on the road and hopefully establishing a program the entire league fears - whether it's traveling to the dark confines of the Huntsman Center (and can I just say how great it is to have that Hunty Mystique back?) or hosting a team that is very capable of silencing your gym.
Hopefully that begins this Thursday. Utah basketball is putting the pieces together and that's a good thing. The next logical piece now, though, is to win on the road.