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A Philosophical Approach to Utah Basketball (And All Other Sports)

I present a philosophical approach as to why it’s a good thing to continue to invest in the Utes’ basketball season. You have nothing to lose.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

While watching the Utah Utes gets crushed again by the Washington Huskies at 10:45 PM on Wednesday night, my mind began to wander, and I started to think about Pascal’s Wager instead.

For those unfamiliar with Pascal’s Wager, that is a term coined for a philosophical argument dealing with belief in God. Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher in the 1600s who contemplated what it meant for a human to believe, or not believe, in God. He argued that any logical and rational human being will choose to believe in God. His reasoning was that if God exists and a human believes in God, then they will sacrifice temporary pleasures on earth for an eternity of rewards in heaven. Meanwhile, if one doesn’t believe in a living God, then they will receive earthly entertainment only to follow that up with receiving eternal damnation.

However, if one believes, or doesn’t believe God, and God doesn’t actually exist, then nothing really happens to you. Because you’ll just be dead. It’s similar to the feelings Andrew Whitworth had after losing the Super Bowl.

Pascal basically argues that believing in God requires short term sacrifice with the chance at eternal reward ,while also avoiding the chance of eternal consequences. And if you’re wrong, whoops you’re dead anyway. It’s the finite versus the infinite. Here’s a handy-dandy chart:

No, the Utah game wasn’t so bad that I started tuning out in order to ponder the nature of God and the complexities of human belief. Instead, I started thinking about how Pascal’s Wager can be applied to basketball, and especially this Utah basketball season.

The Utes have been unpredictable this season, electrifying at times and wildly disappointing at many other times. Utah just played their worst game of the entire season against Washington, losing to the Huskies 62-45. Fun side note, there was a period of over 15 straight minutes in the game where the Utes didn’t make a single field goal. It was hard to watch.

In a period of only two games, Utah has fallen from solo second in the conference all the way down to a tie for fourth. If the season ended today, Utah would be on the outside of the Top-4 seeds due to tiebreakers. With four games left to play, Utah has to play exceptional basketball in order to stay in the Top-4 of the conference standings.

The good news is: Utah won the first matchup between all of the teams left on their schedule. The Utes smoked Colorado, USC, and Washington State, and they had a miraculous comeback against UCLA. Utah will feel confident in all of these games.

The bad news is: Colorado and Washington State have markedly improved since the last time they played Utah. Also, UCLA and USC are playing Utah in Salt Lake City, which apparently is a bad thing this year.

It’s really a coin flip as to how Utah’s season is going to end. And the best-case scenario is Utah finishing only second in the conference. Also, no matter what happens in these games, Utah will not receive an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. You may be asking, why are we obsessing over where Utah finishes in the conference and each of these games if they seem to have very little impact on Utah’s end of season reward?

The answer is, in a way, all of this is about winning the NCAA tournament. In order to win the NCAA tournament, Utah must make the NCAA tournament. In order to make the NCAA tournament, Utah must win the Pac-12 tournament. In order to win the Pac-12 tournament, the numbers tell us, one must finish in the Top-4 of the regular season standings and receive a first-round bye. Six of the seven Pac-12 tournament winners have received a first-round bye. To receive a first-round bye, Utah needs to win each of these individual basketball games.

I’m not insane and claiming that Utah is going to win the NCAA tournament, but as long as the steps below it are still possible, the chance of Utah winning the NCAA tournament is still there as well. It’s the same with winning the Pac-12 tournament or making the NCAA tournament. There’s still a chance.

This brings us back to Pascal’s Wager. I would argue that it is far better to continue to invest in the Utes basketball season on the off-chance of receiving a tremendous emotional reward that will last a lifetime. In this case, the reward would be that you supported and walked through the valley of death with a Utah team that won either their first Pac-12 tournament, made the NCAA tournament on a miracle run, or (again, not suggesting it will happen) won the NCAA tournament in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. As sports fans, we all know that victories by our favorite teams are far sweeter when we invest in that team and watch that team throughout the season.

If one were to choose not to support Utah, then they may be pleasantly surprised to find that Utah won something important, but the emotional reward will be insignificant compared to what could have been had one been engaged with the team throughout the season. There may even be some sadness at having missed out on these great moments as they were happening.

On the other hand, if Utah falls apart and everything collapses around them, life will continue to go on. We will have sacrificed a few hours of our life to watch some basketball every few days, which is never really a bad thing anyway. Here’s a handy-dandy chart for what I’m dubbing Pascal’s Sports Wager:

This sports version of Pascal’s Wager applies to really every single sport that we watch. Why do you think NBA fans of teams other than the Warriors are still watching the NBA regular season and worrying about where their team is going to fall in the playoff standings? Sure, the Warriors are probably going to win the title again, but maybe if the Jazz get the No. 6 seed, they’ll be able to beat the Thunder in Round 1, and then they’ve already showed they can beat the Nuggets in Round 2, and then maybe the Warriors will be tired in Round 3, and Joe Ingles will go off. and Donovan Mitchell will elevate his game another level, and the Jazz will pull the upset in six games and be in the NBA Finals. We’re good and convincing ourselves of things like that, and we usually think of things like this in similar run-on sentences.

If the Jazz, or any other NBA team were to actually win the title, then the joys afterward will always be so much sweeter and spectacular for the fans who lived and died with their team throughout the entire season. Even the Warriors fans who have lived and died with the team during their past five years of knowing the Warriors existed will find joy in seeing the Warriors win the title.

This is the wager we make in following every sport. The hope is never officially dead until your team’s season is over, or one is eliminated from playoff contention. That’s what makes the wager so appropriate for college basketball though, a team’s chance of making the postseason is never truly gone until their season is officially over. This only happens when they get eliminated from the conference tournament. So, the hope for a college basketball team can live on far longer than the hope of a bad MLB team or a New York Knicks fan. Hope never dies in college basketball, that’s why everyone loves a Cinderella Story so much.

You might as well wager some of your time and come along for the ride, maybe this year will be the Utes year for that. And if not, I promise the reward will always be worth the risk.

Our next step in the emotional ride through Utah’s basketball season will be on Saturday against the Washington State Cougars. This was supposed to be the easiest game left for Utah on their schedule, and while that still might be the case, this is no longer an easy game by any means.

Despite looking like a disaster for much of the season, the Cougars are cooking, and they have beat some of the better teams in the Pac-12 in recent weeks. In their last four games, Washington State is 3-1, and their one loss came to Washington by two points. In the other three games, they demolished Arizona and Arizona State on the road, and on Wednesday they beat Colorado by two in Pullman.

WSU is driven by two stars on the offensive side of the ball, one a senior and one a freshman. The first is the senior, Robert Franks. The dude is a monster when it comes to scoring. In the 21 games Franks has played at this point in the season, he has only scored in single digits once. He has scored 20 or more points in a game twice as often (14) as he has scored under 20 points (7). This isn’t a case of scoring simply because he shoots a lot either. He does shoot a lot, 15 times per game, but his shooting percentage is at 51.4 percent. He also makes a ton of 3-pointers, tied for the most per game in the Pac-12, while still making 40 percent of them. Those are good numbers. Only 66 other players in college basketball history have shot that well while scoring 20 points per game.

It’s likely that Franks would be the frontrunner for Pac-12 player of the year if Washington State didn’t have such a terrible conference record. They’re still only 4-9 in conference play despite winning three of their last four. Instead, that honor will probably go to Matisse Thybulle of the Washington Huskies.

Perhaps unfortunately for Utah, they haven’t had to face Franks yet this season. Franks was out with a hip contusion when the Cougars came to Salt Lake City to play the Utes in January. The Utes ended up winning that game pretty easily 88-70. Utah was up by 20 at halftime and actually got outscored in the second half, partly because they took their foot off the gas and partly because Washington State’s other star, C.J. Elleby, played extremely well in the second half.

Elleby is a freshman for the Cougars this year, and he is emerging as a dominant offensive threat in his own right. Along with the likes of Timmy Allen, Elleby has emerged as a frontrunner for Pac-12 freshman of the year. He’s a strong all-around player who makes an impact in nearly every stat category. He’s averaging 15.2 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game, and 3.0 assists per game. While he’s listed at 6’6”, he plays taller than he looks (maybe it’s just his massive hair) and is more athletic than you would expect. He was the best player on the court for the Cougars against the Utes the first time around, putting up 21 points when only one other Cougar even made it to single digits.

I also know from, uh, experience, that the Utah student section heckled C.J. Elleby far more than any other player during that game, and probably more than any other player in a game this season. So, Elleby might be motivated to have a strong game against Utah this week.

Washington State’s biggest problems over the course of the season have been defensive issues. However, they’ve started to turn things around in the last few games. For the season, they’ve been in the bottom-fourth of college basketball in defensive shooting percentage. Teams have shot 46 percent against the Cougars defense, but in the last three games, teams are only shooting 38 percent. That figure would be good enough for Top-10 in the nation over the course of a season. Their points allowed per game over that streak has dropped from 77 to 67. This defensive surge has been the reason for the turnaround for the Cougars.

It will come down to this battle between the surging Cougars defense and a Utah offense that just got embarrassed in their previous game. The box score still burns the eyeballs.

Not having Timmy Allen against Washington was definitely a factor in Utah struggling on offense. He’s been Utah’s most consistent offensive player since Pac-12 play started, and Utah really struggled inside of the 3-point line without him. Right now, Allen is considered a game-time decision for Saturday’s game against Washington State.

As for the rest of the offense, they need to figure things out. Granted, Utah isn’t the only team to have no answer for the Huskies defense this season. Most teams have had their worst offensive games against UW. Utah just can’t afford to have those struggles continue, and that leads everyone to keep looking to Sedrick Barefield for answers.

Barefield is taking five more shots than any other Utah player per game, and his struggles continued against Washington after starting hot from the 3-point line. He ended the night 4-13 from the field and didn’t make a shot after the 13-minute mark of the first half.

Utah doesn’t have another player who can consistently get a bucket if Allen is out again Saturday. If Utah is going to get back to winning games, it’s going to start with Barefield getting his shot going again. Parker Van Dyke is really good at turning it on when other teams are giving him space, and Jayce Johnson will score down-low when he has the chance, but if Barefield is struggling, teams can focus a lot more on the other guys who aren’t as good as primary scorers.

With Utah matching up against the second-worst defense in the Pac-12 now is the time for Barefield to figure it out. Normally, you wouldn’t be wondering if Utah would be able to keep pace on offense against Washington State. This time though, Utah is going to have to be the one to step up if they are going to have a chance at winning this game. We’re basically in the exact opposite position with these teams as we were a month ago. Look how the turntables.