It proved an uneven week for the Utes as they tripped to Southern California, winning their first Pac-12 road game, and then, after gaining momentum, produced their first lopsided defeat of the year. Now Utah returns home for the most crucial stretch of the season, and their postseason hopes will certainly be defined by what they can do at home.
Utah's season was not lost at UCLA, of course, but it did take a hit and because of that, their next three home games, contests against three potential tournament teams, is going to set the tone for what lies ahead for a team trying to make its way back to the postseason for the first time in five years.
For the Utes to have any chance at the NIT this year, they can't afford to lose any of these games. They find themselves in a tough spot anyway, and one I've discussed in the past, as they probably can't get to the NIT without 20 wins and the only way to assure that many victories, you'd think Utah needs to beat Arizona (I'm still not counting on them to win another road game, which puts them at nineteen-wins prior to the Pac-12 victory without a win over the Wildcats). While their run in last year's Pac-12 Tournament does suggest they are capable of something equal this year and therefore, they could push the 20 mark there, as well, their best shot remains winning out at home.
But beating Arizona, and then winning against Arizona State and Colorado, definitely opens up the door to the NCAA Tournament again - something that, right now, seems fairly unlikely due to their horrific strength of schedule and bad RPI.
A win or two on the road, or in the conference tournament, again elevates the discussion.
Which makes this week, and then the Colorado game, the most important stretch of the season for the Utes. They have to win all three, or force piecing together their postseason chances in Vegas. Not the most ideal situation when it's all or nothin', and you're not working with a home court advantage.
Still, even though the Bruins loss put a damper on Utah's rebound from the dispiriting three-game road swing less than a month ago, it's good to be talking about postseason possibilities this season. They're real. It's not just junk talk. Utah could very well be a NIT team, and, if things break their way, potentially build the resume of a NCAA one. I don't think the latter happens without overcoming some daunting challenges, but the road to the NIT still exists and hopefully, at least for this season, the Utes will be able to gain the traction needed to proceed down it.
The NIT was what I hoped for when this journey began back in November, and so far, it's still the most viable option. But it'll require a few more wins, and that means Utah must deliver - especially at home.
Anything less and our best hopes could be the CBI.