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The Most Important Week of the Utes’ Season

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This is the most important week the Utes have, and they need to capitalize on it to save and energize their season.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you’re still grasping to this miniscule hope that, somehow, the Utes will sneak their way into the NCAA tournament. I don’t know if this is an unpopular opinion or not, but I’ve always enjoyed the NCAA tournament far more than the NIT. Because of this hope, I’ve tried to figure out the best paths for Utah to get into the tournament.

There are two ways to make the NCAA tournament field, winning a conference tournament or getting selected as an at-large bid by the NCAA selection committee. Let’s start with the more improbable of the two, the at-large bid.

Prior to this season, the NCAA unveiled a fancy new ratings system to determine which teams are good and which teams are bad at basketball. This statistic is called NET rating. It measures several different things including quality wins, offensive and defensive efficiency, and win percentage. The selection process of at-large teams won’t be based solely on NET rating, but it seems likely that the NCAA will put a big emphasis on their shiny new tool when choosing teams this year.

It’s also important to remember that there are 32 college basketball conferences, and therefore only 36 at-large bits to begin with. If a team wants to essentially guarantee they will receive an at-large bid, they need to be in the top-36 of NET rating. It’s also fair to assume some of these top-36 teams will win their conference tournament, opening roughly nine extra spots. This tells us that in order for a team to receive an at-large bid, they need to be somewhere around the top-45 in NET rating.

Right now, the Utes are ranked 89th in NET rating, leaving them 44 spots outside of at-large bid range. Last year, the Pac-12 had two teams make it as at-large bids playing in the first four games (in other words, they were two of the last four teams to get in), UCLA and ASU. ASU didn’t lose a nonconference game (including against Kansas) before falling apart in conference play. UCLA went 11-7 in conference play but also had quality nonconference wins against Kentucky and Cincinnati. If there is one thing that Utah lacks, it’s a quality nonconference win. If there’s one thing Utah has too many of, its not good nonconference losses (I won’t forgive you Hawaii). Realistically, I think that Utah has to win all their remaining conference games, except maybe against Washington, and then make it to the finals of the conference tournament in order to even have a chance at an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.

If I were a betting man, I would bet on Utah not making the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid, though I don’t think anyone would bet me on that. (If you do want to make this bet send me a message). If Utah wants to make the NCAA tournament, their best bet is going to come by winning the Pac-12 tournament first. Because of the increasing self-cannibalization of the Pac-12, that seems more plausible with this team than it would in previous years. The Pac-12 has zero elite teams, one team that is good (Washington), two bad teams (Cal and Washington State), and nine teams that no one has any freaking idea what they’re going to do on a given night.

Thankfully, the Pac-12 invites all teams in the conference to play in the tournament (though maybe they’ll try to keep Cal out this year). But Utah can’t sit around and wait for the tournament to start and hope they get lucky. The key to winning to the Pac-12 tournament starts by finishing in the top-4 during conference play and in turn receiving a top-4 seed in the conference tournament.

I went back and looked at all the results from the previous Pac-12 tournaments, and as much madness as there is in mid-March for the NCAA tournament, there’s a lot of beginning-of-March basicness in the Pac-12 tournament. Since the Pac-12 became a thing, there have been seven conference tournaments. In that time, only one team that wasn’t a top-4 seed played in the final of the tournament. That was in 2012, which was the first year of the Pac-12 tournament. Colorado won the tournament as a 6-seed. That was another year of self-defeat in the Pac-12 as it was the only time in conference history where the regular season conference winner (Washington), didn’t get selected for the NCAA tournament.

It’s important to remember that the top-4 seeds in the tournament get a first-round bye. In the history of the conference, only seven teams that weren’t a top-4 seed even made it to the semifinal of the tournament. Conveniently, two of those occurred in the past two years because Utah was the top-4 seed that lost. Whatever. My personal philosophy is those who ignore history can’t be hurt by it.

A team that doesn’t have a top-4 seed has a pretty minimal chance of making the conference championship game, much less winning it. So, if Utah wants to have a chance at winning the conference tournament, they need to secure one of those first-round byes. In the history of the Pac-12, the No. 4 seed finished with a conference record of 12-6 three times, 11-7 three times, and 10-8 once. That gives us a good barometer of where Utah needs to finish the conference season. (Side note: a barometer is something that measures atmospheric pressure and does not actually measure basketball success. Stay woke.)

If we assume that Pac-12 continues to destroy itself from within, it’s probably safe to say that 11-7 will be good enough for the No. 4 spot this year. The Utes have 11 games left on the season, which means they would need to finish 6-5 to reach 11-7. After this home weekend with the Oregon schools, the Utes remaining schedule features a road trip to Los Angeles, a home series against the Arizona schools, a road trip to the states of Washington and Colorado, and then the season ends with home games against the L.A. schools. The easiest part of the conference schedule is over for Utah. The only break in the remaining schedule is against Colorado and Washington State, and both of those games are on the road.

All of this combines to make this the most important week of the season for the Utes. This weekend will define what the Utes need to do for the remainder of their season. Oregon and Oregon State are both quality teams, but they’re both struggling as of late against quality Pac-12 competition. Oregon State has lost three of their last four, and Oregon has lost two of their last three. This week gives the Utes the best chance at winning both games in a series that they have for the rest of their season.

Winning both games would be immensely important to the Utes hopes at securing a top-4 seed in the conference. Utah is currently tied for second in the Pac-12 standings at 5-2, but they’re only one game ahead of Oregon State and UCLA, who are 4-3 and tied for 6th place. Winning both games against the Oregon schools would move Utah to 7-2 and would leave them, at worst, still tied for second in the conference and with more separation from the clump in the middle of the Pac-12. Falling outside of the top-4 at that point would take a major collapse.

On the other hand, two losses here would be devastating. It would leave the Utes at 5-4 in the conference, tied for the 5th spot in the conference, with their most difficult games of the season still remaining. Splitting the series wouldn’t be as devastating, but it would leave Utah still clumped with six other teams fighting for the remaining three spots in the top-4 behind Washington. Utah would have to split every series going forward and win on the road against Colorado, and they would have no room for error. That won’t be an easy task for this wildly inconsistent Utah team.

Essentially, this week could either put Utah in a prime position to be in the top tier in the Pac-12, give themselves a shot at winning the Pac-12 tournament, and therefore a chance at making the NCAA tournament, or it could leave the Utes with an incredibly difficult uphill battle with no room for error. This is the most important week the Utes have, and they need to capitalize on it to save and energize their season.

All right let’s look at the first game of this series against Oregon.

It was mentioned that Oregon has lost two of their last three games. One was on the road against Arizona State. The next was a very close game against Washington where Oregon was winning most of the game before losing the lead down the stretch and then committing either an incredibly dumb foul or no foul at all, depending on how you look at it, in the closing seconds to allow Washington to shoot free throws to win.

The last game Oregon played was against Washington State and it was painful to watch. Not because of the basketball, but because some fan was standing way to close to the ESPN sound system and kept shouting “OHHHHHH” at the top of her lungs and yelling other nonsense to where you couldn’t hear the broadcast. Also, at one point, you could here another fan try to heckle CJ Elleby by yelling, “How long does it take you to wash the virgin out of your hair?” I can only assume he thought CJ’s hair looked really oily, like virgin oil, so he was asking Elleby (who has great hair) how long it takes to wash his hair after the basketball game. A strange thing to be curious about during a basketball game, but whatever.

Either way Oregon won the game by 20 despite trailing at halftime and allowing Washington State to shoot 54% from the field. The difference came from Washington State turning the ball over 17 times and only scoring two points in the last 8:53 of gameplay.

According to KenPom, Oregon is ranked 51st, a lot farther ahead of the Utes who are ranked 118th after last week. NET rating has Oregon at 66th, compared to the Utes 89th. Utah figures to be an underdog by most rankings in these next two games against the Oregon schools. Oregon would likely be a top-25 team if they had their star center, Bol Bol, who is out for the season with a stress fracture in his left foot. Besides having an amazing name, Bol (using his last name here) was projected as a Top-5 pick before getting hurt and will still be a lottery pick in the draft this year.

Since the fall of Bol Bol, Oregon has struggled to figure out who their leading scorer is going to be. Only one player on Oregon has made more baskets than Bol (again his last name) this season. Paul White has made 75 field goals this year to Bol’s 74. What’s important to note is that White and most of the Oregon roster have played 20 games to Bol’s 9. So, offense has been a struggle. They have appeared to find their go to with the emergence of F Louis King. King didn’t play in the first seven games of the season, but in his last seven games he has scored 15 or more points in six of them. King’s biggest threat comes from the 3-point line, he shoots 38% from there. If Utah can slow King down, then the rest the Oregon offense will struggle to find buckets as well.

Oregon makes up for their offensive struggles by playing really good defense and by playing at one of the slowest tempos in all of college basketball. Oregon averages 68 possessions per game, while the average team has about 72. That’s not really a problem for Utah though because they also play with a slow tempo, averaging 69 possessions a game.

The determining battle in this game is going to be Utah’s offense against the Oregon defense. Oregon’s defense is built on solid play around the 3-point line. Oregon has only allowed opponents to shoot 30% from deep this season, good for 28th in the entire nation. I’m sure you’re well aware by now that Utah lives and dies by the 3-point shot. Oregon is probably going to run Utah off the arc and force them to play offense inside the 3-point line. That means that either Utah’s guards are going to have to penetrate off the dribble. The other option is for either Timmy Allen or Jayce Johnson to have a big game down low. Allen and Johnson are the only Utes with major playing time that don’t get a high volume of their shots from shooting 3s.

Neither one of those options plays into the strengths of the Utah offense. Only 44% of their points come from 2-point shots. Even when the shots aren’t falling, Utah is going to shoot 3s gosh dang it. A clear example is the Washington loss where Utah took 30 3-pointers while making 20% of them. They really have this internal conflict where either Utah can settle for shooting contested 3-pointers or they can try to move inside. Oregon has pretty average interior defense, so that can be exploited. Its just a matter of whether Utah has the talent to do so with their ball-handling and their post play.

This isn’t an easy game for Utah. They’ll probably be underdogs. Oregon’s defensive strength counters Utah’s offensive strength. If Utah can adjust, their offense should still be able to function and get buckets. If not, they’ll keep shooting contested 3s and have to pray that they go in. History tells us that’s not the strategy to use though.

A wise man once said, “Basketball is about getting buckets.” If the offense for Utah functions well, they will win. If not, it could be rough night. So, get buckets.