Will Utah be a legitimate NCAA Tournament team next year? I think so. In fact, anything short of a tournament appearance would feel a great deal disappointing with how much the program has improved over the last couple years.
But will the Utes be a team built for a potential deep tournament run? That question is harder to answer, and beyond another push forward, probably shouldn't be expected to go beyond the first week of action. That's not a knock - it's just the reality based on what we saw this season, and what the potential could be for next season.
To win in the NCAA Tournament, you need to field a team capable of a few things that, at the moment, elude the Utes. Most notably, that is the ability to not go long stretches without points. What killed Utah for much of the season, at least in their losses, was their incredibly frustrating ability to go minutes without any type of field goal. Which, for a team that actually shot the ball well, was both baffling and damning.
Those droughts kill teams. It ends seasons. For Utah to win, or at least become a viable threat in the NCAA Tournament, they'll need more consistency from their bigger players. I discussed this last week, and it's something that really is displayed in this year's postseason - the teams that do well almost certainly have a player who is capable of taking over a game.
The problem with the NCAA Tournament, unlike, say, the regular season, is that almost every team you face will either be better than you or at least good enough to beat you. In those games, as we saw this season, the Utes aren't so hot - at least, beyond the reaches of the Huntsman Center.
So, games often come down to the little things, and while Utah made some huge gains this season, it was still the little things that killed 'em. Until those are fixed, it's hard not to expect it to kill 'em when they get back to the NCAA Tournament and it's why the coaches, hopefully, have a way of figuring it out.
Good NCAA Tournament teams, not necessarily teams good enough to receive a bid, don't always go long stretches of the half without scoring. They hit their free throws. They rebound well. They have a player capable of taking over a game - but more important than any: they know how to close out games.
That last point is something that plagued Utah all season, and it's not with good reason. There is no explanation for it, beyond hopefully inexperience, because it isn't like it was only a handful of games decided by six points or less. In those games, the Utes were an amazingly ugly 3-8. In the Tournament, you're more likely going to be in a game decided by that margin than not. If Utah can't fix their close game issues, our excitement over receiving a bid will be short lived.
I guess it comes down to whether those struggles are entirely built out of inexperience or a deeper issue at play here. Unfortunately, that isn't something I can answer and we probably won't receive an answer until next year. Most likely during their first close game.
If they get that fixed, and it'll require not going prolonged periods without buckets, hitting clutch free throws and pulling down important rebounds, this team does have the talent and coaching, I believe, to make a run through March. But at this point, that's a big if, and this year's tournament shows us why. As good as Utah appears to be, it's hard imagining this squad getting out of the first round had they somehow earned an invite.
Hopefully this changes.