I think we can all agree the Runnin' Utes are vastly improved. That was evident in their narrow loss to #3 Arizona over the weekend - a game Utah had a chance to win at the very end. It was a tough loss, but it showcased the progress this team has experienced this season. In fact, of their six losses, only one, against SMU, has been by more than five points.
But a close defeat is still a defeat and sooner or later, to show quality improvement, the team is going to have to start winning some conference games. There is no better opportunity than tonight and then Saturday against UCLA and USC.
While I don't want to diminish the progress we've seen this season, I still think it's important we don't get swept away by close losses and instead keep our eye on the real prize - an improved conference record. For that to happen, for the Utes to best last year's three wins, I've got to think they need at least a split in these next two games because I really won't feel as confident, and comfortable, about this year's team if they drop their next two at home - both of which, I believe, are winnable.
Tonight's game is the toughest and the most likely loss of the two. The Bruins struggled a bit earlier this season, but since their nine-point loss to San Diego State, they've vastly improved and now enter tonight on a seven-game win streak - including a win over #7 Missouri, as well as conference victories against Cal and Stanford.
I don't expect a win, so, like against Arizona, I just hope for a competitive game. The last time these two teams met, Utah lost by a blistering 27 points. It's hard to imagine a performance much worse than that one.
Still, they are improved and I do expect a decent crowd on hand, especially with the blackout. If the Utes can dictate the flow, much like they did last Saturday, this game will probably come down to the final minutes once again. Unfortunately, this is where Utah has been dinged much of the season, as they've struggled in close games. Maybe with a partisan crowd and the blackout magic, they'll finally be able to pull one of those out. Then again, maybe, like the BSU game, they get hot and ride that all the way to a blowout win.
So, we've got a pretty big game tonight against a pretty big opponent. I can't recall the last time UCLA played in Salt Lake City - but let's hope this is a game they want to forget.
A win here might not make up for the near-victory against the Wildcats this past weekend, but it'll sure help with the process and put the Utes in a good position to be 2-2 by the end of the week. Of course, I don't want to put the cart before the horse. Just beat UCLA.