Utes finish 8th and will open against Washington

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Utah basketball was a basket away from a 3rd place Pac-12 finish.

The tumble proved severe. Two points from victory and a winning Pac-12 record that would have given the team a third-place finish in conference play, the Runnin' Utes couldn't get off a shot and fell to 8th in a competitive conference ripe with parity.

Utah was so close, as it's been this entire season, to being one of the better Pac-12 teams. Instead, because their late-game struggles proved a consistent issue, the Utes now fall toward the bottom half, good to be sure, but not quite good enough.

They enter the Pac-12 Tournament with the 8th seed and will take on Washington, who they split the regular season with. Utah, all things considered, should be favored but victory won't necessarily mean much as Arizona looms a round away.

The difference between 3rd and 8th is stark.

The Utes, who made it to the semifinals of last year's Pac-12 Tournament, now face long odds to reach the NCAA Tournament. Their bubble, which grew after a strong road win over Cal, officially popped with that loss to the Cardinal, and no amount of winning - beyond winning out - will be enough to get them back to that bubble - even if they manage to upset Arizona and make their way to the title game.

They need to win the Pac-12 Tournament if they want to go dancing.

Those odds took a hit with their loss to Stanford, and then with California's victory over Colorado, as Arizona, who swept the season series against the Utes, has proven one of the best teams in the country. Though beatable, and certainly Utah has played 'em tough the last two years, the Utes haven't scored a win against the Wildcats since their stunning victory in 1998 to advance to the Final Four.

That was a basically a lifetime ago in basketball years.

Still, these Utes are tough and because they're tough, it's hard to imagine them not making some noise - even if that noise amounts to taking Arizona to the final minutes before bowing out in respectable defeat.

Then it'll be off to the NIT and making more noise there.

Of course, if Utah can upset the Wildcats, if they can somehow defeat the reigning Pac-12 Champions, then things become increasingly real.

But that's neither here nor there - at least, not right now, anyway. The Utes still face a formidable foe in Washington, and though the Huskies have disappointed much of this season, they've got the talent worthy of defeating Utah. After all, they already have.

So, one game at a time. The Utes need to bounce back and do something in the Pac-12 Tournament to prolong their season. What they've accomplished already has proven triumph all things considered, however, the season can't end on consecutive losses - Utah can't back their way into the NIT losing two winnable games.

Now it's about padding that win total and doing enough to put themselves in position to potentially pull a shocker or two. None of that can happen if they're bounced by the Huskies. Then the NIT, which certainly we would have all accepted back in November, would feel kind of hollow.

I guess that's how you know things have improved because we measure disappointment by greater lengths than just losing games. Our expectations are stronger for it. This season can never prove a failure, but it still has a chance to be magical.

Let it be magical in Vegas.

Let our expectations only continue to grow.

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