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Utes show progress

A year after the worst season in school history, the Runnin' Utes are putting together what could be a surprising season. So, how good are they?

Douglas C. Pizac-USA Today Sport

Saturday night's three-point loss to BYU was the most competitive the Utes have been against the Cougars down in Provo since their win during the 2005 season. It's been a stretch of some bad games, ranging from a 23 point loss in Ray Giacoletti's final season, to a 13 point loss in Jim Boylen's.

No matter how good, or bad the Utes seemed to be, they always struggled down in Provo.

That made Saturday's outcome important, and yet also very painful. We've seen way too many losses to our rivals to the south - both at home and on the road - that any defeat is now considered staggering ... even if it isn't.

There was progress in this game and we shouldn't let our emotions overshadow that progress. A year ago, this game probably would have been overwhelmingly bad - but it wasn't. In fact, you could make the case Utah is actually the better team this year than BYU, which is something we haven't been able to say since the 2009 season.

But how good are they really?

They're definitely better than last year's, and I don't think that's up for much debate, so, where does that put them in the Pac-12? Remember, this team was picked to finish last. I'm actually thinking they won't finish last and if they do, it'll be pretty disappointing with how much success they've shown early in the year. For a last-place finish to take place, we'll have to see a type of implosion that could wreck the coaching staff's prospects for seasons to come.

Still, it's not like I see this team contending for anything. It's unlikely they'll ever be competing for a NCAA Tournament, or even NIT, berth - which I don't think any of us expected at the start of the season anyway. But they could potentially make a run at the lesser tournaments, you know, the CBIs and CITs of the world ... which, while far from prestigious, would be a monumental step in the right direction for a program that has a dearth of postseason appearances the last few years.

For that to happen, though, this program will have to probably finish somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12 - which would be quite the step up from where they were projected and especially where they finished last year. Is it doable? I think so. I don't believe expecting a push into the 4-7 range of the conference is too ambitious.

Of course, it'll take winning at home and being competitive on the road - neither of which was really the case at all last year.

It's also important the Utes build up some momentum the final weeks of December before heading off into the start of the Pac-12 schedule. It's doable, and in fact, if this team is going to be at all competitive for the murky middle of the conference, going undefeated in their next three games should be the expectation. Anything less would prove the gains we've seen this year might be largely superficial, since they play SMU, Cal State Northridge and College of Idaho at home - the latter who's a DII program.

If it shakes out like it should, the Runnin' Utes will enter Pac-12 play with a 9-3 record and at least some momentum. Then, at that point, they could string together enough conference wins to finish with a respectable record. Certainly they should do better than last year's 3-15 finish.