The NIT is not a forgone conclusion for this year's Runnin' Utes. In fact, I'd wager making the second most prestigious college basketball tournament will prove an uphill battle, and one I'm not so sure Utah can win.
I say this not because Utah is producing a failing season, but because the NIT's rules, and the uncertainty of much of the Pac-12, leaves wide odds for the Utes to grab one of the 32 bids. Since regular season conference champions who are left out of the Big Dance are guaranteed a spot in the tournament, there is a good chance ten or more other programs, mostly from smaller conferences, receive an auto-bid. That narrows Utah's chances considerably, especially with their questionable RPI.
Even more troubling for the Utes is the Pac-12. While a deep, and talented conference, there are also a handful of teams above them in the standings that are either a bubble team or have little chance of making the NCAA Tournament. If Utah continues its struggles on the road, even if they win out at home, or most home games, the likelihood they will be able to push their way above 8th in the conference becomes increasingly difficult. The problem they run into is that those teams above them, namely Washington, Oregon State and Stanford, are unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament without winning the Pac-12 Tournament. But if they finish ahead of Utah in conference, it's likely those teams will warrant a longer look than the Utes - especially since they all have roughly the same amount of wins and a far better RPI. That doesn't even get into Oregon and Arizona State, two teams that are on the bubble, but very well could find themselves in the NIT without some serious wins during the second half of the season.
What Utah lost on its current road trip was a chance to solidify their spot in the middle of the conference. Right now, that isn't the case. Utah is 10th and it's solely because of their disappointing play on the road. Now, I anticipate they can improve their win total, but will it be enough to pass the Oregon schools? What about Washington?
The irony, I guess, for the Utes to play their way into NIT consideration, they just may play their way into being a bubble team. What I mean is that because the NIT is becoming an increasingly difficult tournament to get an invite to, Utah will have to dramatically improve in both its RPI and road play to even get a look from the tournament. To do that, they will need to go undefeated at home and maybe steal one, or two, games on the road - all the while at least advancing past the first round of the conference tournament. But if they do that, the Utes are instantly more credible, especially with wins over Arizona and Washington, as a NCAA Tournament team. It'd be infinitely better if they could somehow defeat Stanford or Cal on the road.
Is it likely? Probably not. But that shows just how tough it's going to be to not be stuck playing in the CBI or CIT this season.
It's also an odd twist on their situation. For the Utes to become good enough to be a NIT team, they very well may find they're good enough for the Big Dance.
This week, with home games against Washington and Washington State, is the Utes' last chance to push toward a respectable postseason tournament. They need both wins to even have a chance, and losses will certainly doom them to the unforgettable tournaments most of us would only watch with passive interest. I don't think beating the Huskies or Cougars will instantly put them on the path toward the NCAAs or NIT - but it will certainly get them turned in the right direction. After a nearly disastrous road trip, I guess that's the best thing you can hope for.
Now Utah needs to get it done. This is probably their last, true shot at making 2014 somewhat successful. They can't afford to lose either of these games.