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Was the Utes’ Season a Success?

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We review Utah’s basketball season and decide whether this season should be remembered as a success or a failure.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

With the announcement on Sunday that the Utes would not be participating in any of the postseason college basketball tournaments, Utah’s season officially came to an end. The Utes finished at 17-14 for the season, going 6-6 in nonconference games, 11-7 in Pac-12 games, and 0-1 in the Pac-12 tournament. The team ended up finishing third in the conference but followed that up by getting curb stomped by Oregon in their first game in the Pac-12 tournament and losing 66-54.

The loss to Oregon and an early exit from the Pac-12 tournament again was a frustrating way for the Utes to end the season. It will be hard for Utah fans to stomach the bitter disappointment of that loss going forward. However, one game does not necessarily determine whether or not a team had a successful season. Thus, we need to reevaluate the season and ask the question, did the Utah Utes have a successful basketball season? There’s no one clear factor to determine a successful season, so we’ll run through several criteria and use them to evaluate the overall success of the 2018-2019 season.

What were the preseason expectations for Utah basketball?

To put it nicely, most national media outlets were not exactly enthusiastic about the Utes chances headed into the season. In the Pac-12 Preseason Media Poll, the Utes finished eighth in the voting. The media expected the Utes to be significantly worse than seventh place Colorado and slightly better than ninth place Stanford.

Other national media preseason rankings had similar takes about how the Utes’ season would play out. ESPN, NCAA.com, and Sports Illustrated all predicted that the Utes would finish eighth and be lucky to avoid the Pac-12 cellar.

For what it’s worth, this very website predicted the Utes would finish Top-4 in the conference, but we’re trying to be humble here, so we won’t bring it up.

Did Utah overachieve, underachieve, or meet preseason expectations?

Without a doubt, the Utes overachieved compared to what was expected coming into the season. The season started out rough, with all of Utah’s bad losses coming during the nonconference slate of games. Utah failed to defeat any of the good teams on their schedule and lost to a couple of bad teams as well (Northwestern and Hawaii). All of their nonconference wins came against colleges you were only 60 percent sure were real or teams you forgot existed because they’re not good at football.

While the nonconference performances didn’t inspire much confidence in the Utes, they drastically improved once conference play began. As was mentioned earlier, the Utes ended up going 11-7 against conference competition, finished solo third in the Pac-12, and five spots higher in the conference than anyone really thought they would.

However, it is officially required that anytime a Pac-12 team is discussed by anyone this year, one must also discuss how much the Pac-12 sucked as a whole. It’s true, the Pac-12 was the equivalent of the green apple flavored Skittle this year (trash), but that doesn’t take away from Utah’s accomplishment. The Utes did what few other teams in the Pac-12 could, they didn’t completely forget how to play basketball for large parts of the season.

Of all the conference games the Utes played, they didn’t have a single game that would be considered a truly bad loss. The worst one would either be the home loss against Oregon State or the road loss against Arizona. Their other losses came against Washington (twice), Oregon, Arizona State, and Colorado. All of those teams finished in the top half of the conference except for Arizona. Utah was good at not losing to teams that were worse than them and managed to steal a few games against teams that were better than them. That’s always a recipe for a winning conference season.

In the end, Utah played to expectations in the nonconference games and then overachieved by a large margin in conference play. Since conference play is when most fans start really paying attention to basketball, Utah will be remembered for overachieving in the regular season.

How did the conference tournament go?

Bad.

The Utes looked really good headed into the conference tournament and had secured a crucial first-round bye. Things took a dark turn real fast though when Utah drew Oregon in their first game of the tournament. The Ducks have solidified themselves as Utah’s biggest nemesis in the Pac-12, and they were already playing their best basketball coming into the tournament.

Oregon was a 5-point favorite before the game, and the whole game nearly mirrored when the teams played each other during the regular season. Utah came out playing great defense and shooting the ball well, held the lead throughout the first half, and then had the wheels completely fall off during the second half. Once again, the Utes looked like first graders being asked to solve calculus as they tried to figure out the Oregon defense. The Ducks eventually pulled away and won in convincing fashion.

The thing about conference tournaments is if a team loses, they’re out of the tournament. So that was all Utah got to do in the Pac-12 tournament after a season’s worth of stressing about it. One game, one loss. Go home.

Oregon did end up winning the whole tournament if that makes you feel any better. I imagine it doesn’t.

Will Utah be participating in postseason basketball?

Nope. Unsurprisingly, the Utes did not snag an invite to the NCAA tournament. But three Pac-12 teams did! The Pac-12 is great at basketball again! We were all worried for nothing! Who cares they are all No. 9 seeds or lower! Conference of Champions! Is that Bill Walton I hear?!

The Utes also didn’t receive an invitation to the NIT or the CBI (College Basketball Invitational). The CBI is largely composed of small mid-majors, so Utah not participating in that tournament isn’t exactly surprising.

It is a little disappointing that the Utes didn’t get invited to the NIT, although they weren’t being predicted by most people to receive an invite. Although the NIT is a lesser knockoff of the NCAA tournament, it still would have been fun to have more Utah basketball to watch. It would have also given the freshman a chance to play against more quality nonconference competition and continue to improve.

Instead, Utah will be watching all of these games at home.

How did the Utes fare against their rivals?

Of the schools from the state of Utah, the Utes only had the chance to play the BYU Cougars. The teams met in December and one of the teams walked away victorious, but we won’t specific which one. That’s all we’ll say about that game. Moving on.

For the sake of having another team to talk about here, we can also discuss how Utah fared against a hated Pac-12 rival, Colorado. The Utes went 1-1 against the Buffs during the season. They destroyed the Buffs in Salt Lake City early in the season. Then they had a miserable shooting night in a loss late in the season in Boulder. Utah and Colorado had comparable seasons with Colorado going 10-8 in conference play and securing the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament.

Utah can say they finished with bragging rights over Colorado since they were ahead in the conference standings at the end of the season. So yeah, take that rival.

Did Utah defeat one of their Pac-12 nemeses?

After eight years of Pac-12 competition, it’s still a little early for Utah to know who their biggest conference rival is. However, we can easily identify two nemeses that Utah has in basketball. These are two teams that Utah can’t seem to beat, no matter how good Utah is or how bad the other team is. These two nemeses are Arizona and Oregon.

Coming into this season, the Utes were 1-12 against Arizona and 2-13 against Oregon since they all came together to form the Pac-12. These are far and away the worst records Utah has against any Pac-12 opponents.

Utah had the chance to play both Arizona and Oregon twice this season. We’ve already discussed the two disastrous Oregon games at length. The Utes lost both games and are now 2-15 against the Ducks. The Ducks are the team that, no matter how bad they are, they probably always deserve to be the favorite when they play the Utes.

Arizona is a different matter. Arizona has a lot of wins against Utah because Arizona has been a perennial power in the Pac-12. However, Utah still has struggled against the Wildcats even when the teams have been on equal footing. This year, the Utes played the Wildcats tight in Tucson, eventually losing in overtime.

In February, the Utes handled the Wildcats easily in Salt Lake City. It’s a win that looks far less impressive in the context of the Wildcats’ season, but it is a win against Arizona, nonetheless.

What was the signature moment of the season?

There can be only one true winner here: Parker Van Dyke’s game winner against UCLA in Los Angeles to seal a 23-point comeback in the final 13 minutes of play. If there’s one moment from this season that will be remembered for more than three years, it will be that play.

Did anyone emerge as a successor to Sedrick Barefield?

When I say a successor to Sedrick Barefield, that refers to the leader of the team, a player who is pivotal to Utah winning each game, and one that Coach K can rely on to carry the team. In this case, that leader appears to be Timmy Allen.

Allen was a revelation for the Utes this season, and he was their best freshman and second-best player on the court. Allen finished second on the team in scoring, second in assists, and third in rebounds. Allen really emerged during conference play, where he scored over 20 points in three different games and averaged 14.5 points per game.

It will be interesting to see how Allen develops over the offseason. He could try to develop a 3-point shot, which would only make him more lethal on offense. He only attempted seven 3s all season, but he made four of them.

Donnie Tillman and Both Gach both showed several flashes of greatness throughout the season, but Tillman doesn’t figure to ever be the first option on offense, and Gach needs another year to really develop his skills and mature, especially as a ballhandler. For now, this looks to be Timmy Allen’s team headed into the future.

Utah does have a solid young core in place for next season. Of players who received consistent playing time, the Utes are only losing Barefield, Van Dyke, and Novak Topalovic. The only thing that the Utes need next year is a true point guard. Maybe Both Gach improves enough to take over that role, or maybe the answer is in incoming freshman, Rylan Jones. No matter what happens, the emergence of the young core this season is a major step forward for the program.

So, was this season a success for Utah?

Yes. There were plenty of disappointments for the Utes this season. There was the continued losing to Oregon, weak nonconference play, and a failure to impact the Pac-12 tournament or make a postseason tournament. In the end, the successes outweigh these failures, in large part because of how low expectations were heading into the season.

It just can’t be forgotten how much Utah overachieved in conference play. The Utes looked to be facing a lost season heading into January, but they turned it around to outplay all but two teams in the Pac-12. With expectations so low, for Utah to finish third in the Pac-12 this season is a success no matter what your opinion is of the conference.

The success of developing a young core also adds to positive feelings about this season. The team also had a signature moment with the comeback win over UCLA. Ultimately, when no one believed in Utah, they got the job done again (during the regular season). If there’s one thing media members love to stay about Larry Krystkowiak, it’s that Utah always outperforms preseason expectations. Utah did that again this year, and you can bet that next year people will expect a lot more from the Utes.

Now, while this season was successful, it was not memorable. Often times in sports, things that are flashy and memorable are confused with things that are good and successful. It’s the reason so many people were convinced Tim Tebow was the greatest quarterback of all time. Tebow was on the news every night so obviously he must be great, right? That just wasn’t the case.

This confusion between flashy things happening and good things happening is a regular occurrence throughout sports. Tim Duncan will never receive enough respect because he liked to make bank shots and abhorred dunking. So, when we evaluate Utah’s basketball season, we shouldn’t confuse the lack of flash with a lack of success.

There’s very little chance this season will be remembered fondly by fans for more than three years, or really be remembered at all. It will be another season on the list Pac-12 Network shows every year of where Utah was projected to finish in the Pac-12 and where the team actually finished.

That’s because the way we remember this season will be determined by the next few seasons of Utah basketball. Either this season will be the start of Utah vaulting back into Pac-12 title and NCAA tournament contention, or it will be another year where Utah did well but ultimately didn’t win anything of note. If Utah does return to contention, people very quickly forget the years of grinding in favor of remembering the glory years of competing for meaningful titles. On the other hand, if Utah continues in mediocrity, this season will get lost in the blur of several other similar seasons.

It’s like when an NBA team outperforms expectations and manages a respectable winning season one year, and the next year, with more experience and training, they emerge as legitimate title contender. The first season was a major success that led to even greater successes, but it’s not one that fans will necessarily remember all that fondly.

So it goes with Utah basketball this year. The Utes didn’t do anything too flashy. They didn’t upset any big teams, go far in the Pac-12 tournament, or make the NCAA tournament.

What they did do was drastically outperform expectations, learn how to consistently win in Pac-12 play, finish third in the conference, and start the development of a young core of exciting players. Those achievements are enough to outweigh the disappointments and leave this season as a success. There’s also plenty of hope for the future now, which is a nice to feeling to have.

What did you think of the Utes’ season? Do you consider it a success? Let me know in the comments.