The 2006 basketball season officially kicked off tonight with Utah's annual Night With the Running Utes. The event marked the kickoff of Utah's season, one that will be looking to rebound after finishing below .500 for the first time since the late 1980s. After last season's struggles, expectations heading into this season aren't nearly as high. However I expect the team to play at a higher level and finish with a winning season. While they will be rebuilding, this team has more depth and better talent all around to compete with most of the conference opponents night in and night out.
Last season the Utes showed signs of progress, defeating league champion San Diego State on the road and taking 2 of 3 from rival BYU. However they also ended up losing a road game to a terrible TCU team and were stunned at home by a mediocre Colorado State program. Yet with all their losses, Utah really played tough down the stretch and even advanced to the second round of the Mountain West Tournament before being defeated by Wyoming. Realistically, Utah was a few shots away from 17 wins and a respectable rebuilding season.
After opening the season 4-0 last year, Utah would go into a major slump, losing on the road to Rice, then ended their preseason with demoralizing losses to Colorado, Washington State and Arizona. This year's schedule is actually much easier and the Utes should open the season up fairly strongly. That could give them momentum heading into the conference season and a strong conference showing could return the Utes to the 20-win club.
My expectations aren't exactly high, I do not believe Utah will make the NCAA Tournament (unless they win the conference tournament) and I don't even see them finishing in the top-3 of the conference. However, the Utes can still do some damage and build a solid foundation for next year. With their rather weak preseason schedule, Utah should easily win 8 or more preseason games to start the season. That should set up for a decent conference run and a solid finish.
With all that said, here's my expectations for this year's Utah team.
- Win at least 8 preseason games. The Utes play 11 preseason games, with a possibility of more if they beat UCF in the first round of the San Juan Shootout.
- Win most home games. Last season the Utes struggled at home, something that can't continue this season. The Huntsman Center constantly ranks as one of the toughest places to play in the nation and the Utes can't allow opposing foes to come into their house and beat them.
- Finish with a winning conference record. Last year Utah went 6-10 in conference play, but really should have won 3 of those games. If the Utes can turn that around and even go 10-6, I think it will be a successful season.
- Don't get blown out. Ugh, last year Utah was blown out more times in one season than they may have been during the entire 1990s. The Utes did a better job at staying in games toward the end of the season, and I hope that carries over this year.
- Defeat BYU at home. BYU hasn't won in Salt Lake since defeating the Utes in 1994. Last season was thought to be their best chance and they got dominated by Utah in Salt Lake. I expect nothing less this season. BYU was a good team last year, but even in Utah's worst season in over a decade, the Utes held their own down in Provo, blew them out in Salt Lake and defeated them in the conference tournament.
- Defeat either San Diego State, Air Force or New Mexico on the road.
If all these are accomplished, I think the Utes will have a decent season and definitely one they can build on.