The leap Utah basketball saw between 2013 and 2014 was near-monumental - especially in conference play. While we dwell on their struggles away from Salt Lake City, it's hard to put into words just how much the Utes improved between the end of last season and the start of this one. What's more impressive is that it came with a great deal of inexperience.
Which is why, even with the loss to St. Mary's in the NIT, it's hard to get too down on what the future holds for Utah basketball. This is a program growing, and no amount of face-planting at the end of the season will change this. So, while the Utes pretty much limp into the offseason, 2015 is still setting up to be something special - a season defined, hopefully, by a return to the NCAA Tournament.
But that isn't to say things are perfect. Utah's lack of wins away from the Huntsman Center is absolutely concerning. While you could ignore those defeats earlier in the season, especially with the Utes' lack of any road preseason games, there was hardly any progress made in away games - Utah struggled against Boise State just as badly as they struggled against St. Mary's a few months later.
For the Utes to elevate themselves to Tournament Level, they will almost definitely need to fix their struggles. More importantly, they'll have to improve the dry spells that have damned them on the road. Against St. Mary's, after ballooning their lead to comfortable margins, Utah shut down, turned the ball over, and vanished. It was an embarrassing final minutes - especially when you consider the Gaels' best player fouled out prior to their run.
If the Utes are to be taken seriously, they need a player to step up and hit the shots down the stretch. Delon Wright has the potential, and one would think Jordan Loveridge does, too, but neither has proven impressive in the last couple of games. Worse, neither appear to be, at this point, capable of taking over a game - though, I suspect Wright is more poised to do that than Loveridge at this point.
Which brings me to Utah basketball's additions for next year. With Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman, two of the most heralded recruits the program has signed in a long, long time, the Utes actually have a foundation set for that type of player. You know, if Loveridge or Wright don't pan out next year. The problem, of course, is that both will be extremely young and inexperienced, and while some true freshmen take off and dominate at the college level, they're almost always the players who gain consensus greatness among the sporting world.
Kuzma and Chapman probably aren't at that level.
Still, they offer continued hope and more weapons for a team that has struggled in a great deal of games sustaining momentum and consistently scoring.
That makes 2015 an exciting year for Utah basketball. Not only do I expect it to be their return to the national picture - they need it to be.
If they can fix their road woes, and find more consistent scoring, the leap will happen and 2015 will prove as dramatic of an improvement as 2014.