Utah receiving the fifth-seed in this year's NIT may prove a blessing in disguise. Sure, three home games would almost certainly guarantee the team a trip to New York for the Final Four, which, truth be told, would trump even one road win and a quick exit. But the Runnin' Utes don't need to learn how to win at home. They do, however, need to learn how to win on the road.
In the past two seasons, they're an embarrassing 4-18 away from the Huntsman Center. That's in contrast to a 29-9 record at home over the same stretch.
If Utah is going to prove itself a legitimate tournament team next year, they'll need to do so away from the Huntsman Center - they'll have to win on the road.
So, their NIT opener against St. Mary's offers a true test. While the Gaels have had a down year, and own minimal impressive wins, the Utes haven't exactly thrilled on the road against lesser teams - losing, of course, to an awful Wazzu program that finished a game out of dead-last in the Pac-12.
While Utah is a vastly improved team this season, their play on the road has dinged 'em - a stretch of poor performances in the clutch that certainly cost them a bid to the Big Dance this year.
That makes tonight's game pretty important. Not only do we want the Utes to extend their season, we want them to gain that experience away from home. It'll pay off next year. I'm sure of it.
The good news, really, is that I think Utah has gained a bit of confidence as of late. They managed to fend off Cal in Berkeley, and while their loss to Stanford stung, the Utes battled back and had a chance to win in regulation. Of course, it isn't necessarily being competitive on the road that has hurt Utah. In all but one game, UCLA, the Utes were in it in the final minutes - with chances to win against Boise State, Washington State, Arizona State, Colorado and the aforementioned Stanford. They failed at every turn.
Hopefully that changes. If it does, Utah will be advancing to take on a beatable Minnesota program (most likely, though, they have to get by their first-round opponent too). Then the sky just may be the limit. If the Utes can somehow make it to New York, which would most likely require them to win three-straight on the road, if they can make the NIT Final Four, it will definitely be one of the more deserving, and satisfying, runs in recent postseason play for Utah.
Though, it's not like they have much history of that as of late.
Still, I hear New York is a helluva town...