Utah’s basketball season came to a rather unceremonious end a week ago at the Huntsman Center against Boise State in the NIT. As soon as the game was over, fans and media alike were asking the question, was the season a disappointment? I’m not so sure the question is so black and white, but it is an interesting one to talk about.
First, I think we need a little bit of context with some pre-season expectations. The Utes essentially rebuilt the roster, with really only two contributors coming back from the previous season with Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam. Losing the likes of Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge, Dakari Tucker and especially Jakob Poeltl would make things difficult. Then there were a handful of transfers, including Isaiah Wright and Brekkott Chapman. Now some of this news didn’t come as a shock, but rebuilding a roster is not an easy job, but I think the staff did a solid job.
Flash forward to the pre-season predictions from the media, the Utes were picked 8th in the league, behind the favorites of Oregon, Arizona and UCLA. Also picked ahead of the Utes were USC, Cal, Washington and Colorado. Utah only lost to Cal in that last group, and almost (key word almost) upset UCLA, Arizona and Oregon - just forget the game in Eugene.
It is worth noting Utah had a very weak non-conference schedule, but I buy the reason why Coach K did it. It was a young team, missing a couple of key players early on (Barefield and Collette), and it was designed to allow this team to get some minutes together, get some wins, and build confidence. Utah did play two really nice non-conference games, with Butler and Xavier, both Sweet 16 teams, and played both of them really well.
Now jump to then end of the season, and the Utes finish with a 20 win season, a 4th place finish in the conference, seemingly proving a lot of doubters wrong. Utah also seemed to find some very key players they can build around for future seasons, including David Collette, the Utah State transfer, Sedrick Barefield, the SMU transfer, JoJo Zamora and others. Utah found some nice players, and seemingly have some dangerous players to build around.
With all that said, it’s hard to determine the season a failure of any kind, especially since they over achieved according the media. Shoot, most of us considered this a rebuilding season that would likely end up in the NIT. Overall, I would say the season as an expectation meeting one, maybe a bit more, since achieving a 1st round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament is quite an accomplishment. However, I also don’t think it’s that easy, because the season was one of ups-and-downs, and did fall short potential that was evident during a strong conference start.
Utah did start conference play with a 6-3 record, with close losses to Arizona, Oregon and UCLA. Utah was looking like a contender for a dark horse conference title run (long shot, I know), that was on track to make the NCAA Tournament. Right after that, Utah went to the Bay Area and lost a heart breaker in double OT to Cal, a loss that was digestible. Then they followed that up with a bad loss to Stanford, a sloppy, uninspired loss. That’s when things just started to come apart. They barely won the game at home against Wazzu, and had to rally to do so. They beat UW the next game, but then got swept in Oregon to the Oregon schools, including giving OSU their first conference win of the season. At that point, and well before that really, it was apparent it would take a Pac-12 Tournament championship to get to the Big Dance. That didn’t happen, obviously, as Utah lost to Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, after whipping them by 30 a week before. Losing to Cal was no surprise, but Utah couldn’t keep Cal off the offensive boards.
Utah’s season would end a week later in the NIT, after a 16 turnover performance, that was very frustrating for long stretches of the game. Essentially, while Utah did surpass some pre-season predictions, they did fall short of their potential. They jumped out of the conference gate strong, and looked to be a contender, only to stumble and fall as the season went along. A frustrating ending of a season for fans, players and coaches alike.
So to answer the question, was the season a disappointment? No, but it could have been a whole lot better.