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Utah reemerging as a basketball school

Utah basketball might not be back - but the journey has seen much progress this season.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

You are not solely a basketball school because your football team is struggling. Utah never established itself as such because, throughout much of the 70s, 80s, and even parts of the 90s, the football team was, at best, mediocre. They were a basketball school because legends built this program into something special - one that routinely made Sweet Sixteens and even managed a Final Four run in 1998.

Fittingly, as basketball slipped, Utah football excelled - producing two of its best seasons in program history. For a brief time, when the Runnin' Utes were struggling through losing seasons, Utah football was king, and it wasn't king solely because of the basketball pains - they certainly deserved the title with what they produced in 2004 and 2008.

But, like the 90s basketball success, it was not sustaining. Utah football, at least the last two years, has kind of collapsed into consecutive losing campaigns. Cosmically, it seems, the fade coincides exactly with the re-rise of Utah basketball.

As the football team slumbers, the basketball team appears to be thriving - as third year head coach Larry Krystkowiak seems to be building a program many feel could push the conference elites next season. Even if a year away, Utah basketball this season has already dethroned UCLA and built a potential tournament team.

Of course, as the program improves, the focus returns to the idea of Utah being a basketball school - something similar to UCLA, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky and other programs that outshine their gridiron brethren. That isn't to say the football team is destined for nothingness and that we can't have two high performing programs - but it does seem infinitely easier for Utah basketball to win, and recruit, than football. It's always been that way. Even in the 70s and 80s. The fact the Runnin' Utes have apparently turned it around in their third conference season, while the football team still has yet to figure it out, kind of points to this. Football in the Pac-12 is more a who's who than basketball. In football, USC is king. In basketball, it's Arizona.

Utah is far closer in basketball, prestige wise, to Arizona than it is in football to USC.

So, maybe the idea of a basketball school is easier to accept. Utah has the history already of a complete and tradition rich program. It's won a national title, made four Final Fours and, whether the Skyline Conference, WAC, Mountain West, and now the Pac-12, success, even if battling a sustained losing drought, seems to follow. This isn't a program of one legend - it's the program of many. You know, guys like Jack Gardner, Bill Foster, Jerry Pimm and Rick Majerus. All four of those coaches have the resume of a hall of famer, even if it's only Majerus who joins Gardner at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

In college basketball, the underdog succeeds far more than in college football. Just ask Wichita State, a Division One basketball program with only 14,000 students, no football team, and a ranking that currently puts them fifth nationally.

Gonzaga, Butler and even Utah of past glories, are established, elite basketball programs that have rivaled the greatness of some of college basketball's most prestigious teams. Butler, two-time national runner-up, only has a little over 4,000 students. Could you imagine a program like that succeeding in college football? Rivaling, in many instances, the most powerful college basketball programs in history?

Utah did it. Boise State did it. But even then, Utah is still Utah in college football. Boise State is still Boise State. No one would ever confuse them for USC or Alabama or Notre Dame. You can, if you squint your eyes just right, confuse Butler for Indiana and Gonzaga for UCLA.

That's the beauty of college basketball. It's tailored for the underdog. It kind of always has been that way.

Which makes the idea of Utah reestablishing itself  as a basketball school plausible. I mean, we've already seen how difficult it is to keep pace with the Pac-12 in football recruiting. This year's basketball class is one of the best not only in the country - but the conference. Utah football has yet to attain such a ranking.

Utah is not yet a basketball school again, and God willing, football will pick up over the next few years too, but the trajectory is clear - and the potential for success seems greater entirely because of what the game offers.

The Runnin' Utes are on the up. They might not be back, but it's clear the journey is progressing nicely.

Is Utah a basketball school again? No. But it's not hard imagining it ... right?