Utah's success this season should not be understated - the program made huge strides toward reemerge as one of the better basketball schools in the west. Larry Krystkowiak deserves credit for what he's built, and continues to build, here in Salt Lake City. Certainly the future is the brightest it's been here since the waning days of the Rick Majerus era. However, as great as this season was for establishing a foundation (to more success, hopefully), Utah's slight by the NIT proves it could have been so much more.
In understating the potential of the program back when the 2013-14 schedule was drawn up, both Chris Hill and Krystkowiak, most definitely unknowingly, handicapped the team's potential. In search of wins, the Utes scheduled some of the worst college basketball has to offer - even adding two non-Division 1 teams. It allowed for those wins, but in the process also failed in testing Utah, especially away from home, and crippled their RPI - leaving it in the 100s for most the season.
Because of that schedule, when talks of NCAA bubbles sprung up, the Utes were rarely mentioned. It didn't matter they were nearing 20 wins or set for a non-losing conference record, the likes of Evergreen State and St. Katherine weighed down nearly every accomplishment.
Back in September, Jason King of ESPN had this to say about Utah's schedule:
After struggling for most of the season, Utah won four of its final five games last spring and entered the offseason full of enthusiasm about the 2013-14 campaign. Reaching the NCAA tournament, however, will be darn near impossible with a schedule that includes just one true road game (at Boise State) and only two contests against likely tourney-bid contenders (Boise State and BYU). Playing a weak schedule the past two seasons made sense. But the Utes should've stepped it up a bit this season.
King was absolutely right on two fronts - Utah's path to the NCAAs were damn near impossible (the Utes, in their fifth-seed from the NIT, shows the team was nowhere near the bubble needed to grab a spot in the tournament) and they should've stepped it up this season.
No, Utah wouldn't have benefited from a BYU-like preseason schedule, however, dropping out Evergreen State and St. Katherine for Weber State and Utah State, would have immensely bolstered their RPI - even if they didn't leave the state of Utah. Make either a road game and that bubble draws closer.
Instead, because the program actively worked to create one of the worst schedules in college basketball, Utah's potential was limited even before the season started.
To put into context how badly the Utes' schedule damaged them, BYU, the team Utah soundly beat at the Huntsman Center this season, grabbed a 10-seed, despite winning the same amount of games overall against tournament teams as Utah (4) and playing less overall tournament teams (7 to the Utes' 8). They got in not because of the strength of the WCC (who proved to be only a two-bid conference compared to a six-bid for the Pac-12) - but the strength of their preseason schedule. It didn't matter that Utah finished 9-9 in a conference that nearly got seven teams into the Big Dance. It didn't matter that, at the end of the day, the Utes held just as many wins over tournament teams as BYU. None of that mattered because they had a preseason schedule so rife with cupcakes that it could've sent Homer Simpson into a diabetic coma.
BYU got the benefit of the doubt due to their preseason schedule, even though their conference schedule was far weaker than Utah's.
In the RPI world, what you do out of conference is weighted far more by the NCAA than what you do in conference.
That killed Utah this season. It negated much of their conference work and because of it, not only were they never really a legitimate NCAA team, they also, despite a 21-win season, weren't even considered one of the best NIT teams - falling behind St. Mary's, a team BYU defeated twice.
Let this be a lesson to the program. Never underestimate your talent. Ever. Even if you think you should (and maybe they should have the past two seasons). Utah gained nothing of note from playing the easiest preseason schedule in the nation. In the long run, though, you could make the case it absolutely hurt 'em - either by taking away a chance to gain NCAA Tournament experience this season, or by damaging their ability to win close games due to their lack of ever really being tested out of conference.
Does that undo everything good this year's team accomplished? Absolutely not. But it does show that it could have been so much more. Utah has the talent to be a tournament team. Unfortunately, they didn't have the schedule. Let's make sure that doesn't happen again next year.