Even though the Runnin' Utes have been written off as a tournament team on multiple occasions this season, time after time, they seem to play their way back into the discussion. With wins over Arizona State and Colorado, Utah has done just that - once again sparking the debate about their merits.
If you go solely by RPI, it's unlikely, beyond a run through the Pac-12 Tournament, that Utah will grab an at-large bid. However, other rankings suggest there is a chance. Unfortunately, those rankings aren't officially used by the NCAA Selection Committee when it comes to picking the most deserving at-large teams.
Ken Pomeroy's rankings, which are highly respected in the college basketball world, puts Utah 35th nationally. Certainly being a top-forty team would be worthy of an at-large bid for the Utes. Likewise, ESPN's BPI puts Utah 34th and deserving of a 9th seed. Sagarin has them at 44th - just ahead of BYU. Yet their RPI, which carries a great deal of weight with the committee, is a dreadful 78th. Credit Utah, though, as it's improved. For a long period of time, they were ranked in the 100s.
But one thing is clear: while the Runnin' Utes at-large chances are still remote at this point, a couple more victories changes things markedly - especially if they can get those wins this week on the road.
With a logjam in the middle of the conference standings, if Utah finishes the regular season winning out, it'll likely net them a 4th or 5th place finish in the conference. By that point, they would own wins over 6 potential tournament teams - BYU, UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado, California and Stanford. Then the narrative would radically change and the Utes would certainly find their way on to the bubble, with a chance to really bolster their hopes in the conference tournament.
Of course, this is Utah, and the Utes haven't shown any reason for fans to believe they can win on the road. Sure, we know they can compete away from Salt Lake City, but on the whole, their abysmal road record speaks for itself. Is it likely Utah can win one game, let alone two?
That's where things get tricky. Surely the Utes will need to at least split to keep their faint tournament hopes alive - but would it be enough?
I think so. Well, that is if they can make noise in the Pac-12 Tournament. The key here is grabbing 20 regular season wins and then padding that total as much as possible in the conference tournament. A split, though, assures the program of a .500 record in the Pac-12 and likely no better than 6th in the conference and, if they tie with Oregon, a spot lower due to the Ducks owning the tie-breaker. That little slip is the difference between playing UCLA and Arizona State in the second round. The Utes match up well with the Sun Devils, especially on a neutral court, and could struggle against the Bruins (Utah's only blowout loss this season came against UCLA on the road). That would potentially pave their way to the semifinals for the second year in a row, where they would likely take on those Bruins.
But I'd much rather avoid them until that point than taking on UCLA in the quarterfinals.
Oddly, though, finishing anywhere from 6th to 7th to 10th to 11th would be more ideal for Utah from the perspective of their tournament chances. If they somehow grab that 4th or 5th spot, they're stuck with a probable run-in with Arizona in the semifinals and ideally, though not by much, UCLA would be a more desirable foe. It's that bracket quirk that may help the Utes in the long run.
Of course, sweep these next two games to finish the season, and then win one Pac-12 Tournament game (Utah would likely receive a first-round bye) and that might be enough to punch their ticket to the Big Dance without winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
So, there are scenarios. Multiple, in fact. I don't know how likely any of them are, and to be honest, I think it's more likely Utah is swept these final games than even managing one win, but it does say a great deal about the growth of this team that we are talking about their tournament chances in March. That's something we've been woefully missing the last five years.
The good news, I guess, is that the Runnin' Utes still hold the keys to their tournament future. All they've got to do is win.