All right, we made it this far watching Utah basketball this year, we can make it one more game. Especially since this game has more weight than could have ever been expected throughout the season. Utah has a chance to capitalize on one of the worst Pac-12 seasons in memory and snag a Top-3 finish in conference play. For a team picked to finish eighth before the season even began, that’s not a bad way to finish.
For all the frustration that fans have felt throughout the season, from inexplicable losses, to terrible shooting nights and all the times Utah tried to throw the ball and the game away, the Utes have consistently outperformed expectations. According to KenPom, the Utes rank as the tenth-best Pac-12 team, yet they have a better record than all but two Pac-12 teams. NET rating has Utah at ninth among Pac-12 teams.
Are most fans going to be thrilled with a probable NIT berth and a bronze medal finish in conference play? Probably not, and there’s no reason to expect them to be elated by those achievements. But impressive accomplishments should still be recognized, even if they aren’t as glittering as would be hoped. Utah lost nine players from last year’s team due to graduation or transfers, and Vante Hendrix transferred six games into the season. For all intents in purposes, this looked like a lost season.
There were plenty of ups and downs, but if there’s one thing Utah did better than most Pac-12 teams, they didn’t completely collapse for a long stretch of time during the season. It’s weird thinking of this Utah team as consistent but compared to everyone else in the Pac-12, Utah ranks a lot higher on the consistency scale.
Now Utah can finish off this season strong and position themselves for a chance at a miracle during the Pac-12 tournament. The Big Ten Network keeps marketing the Big Ten tournament this year by using the phrase, “Everybody has a shot.” If we wanted to make this even more accurate for the Pac-12 tournament, we could say, “The Pac-12 tournament: where everyone has a shot. And even if you miss that shot don’t stress because these are Pac-12 refs, and they’ll probably call a foul and give you another try.”
In all seriousness though, literally every team has a shot this year. Cal is the worst team in the conference and maybe the worst power conference team ever, and they still beat No. 1 Washington. Nobody is safe.
There are some teams Utah would prefer to avoid during the tournament based on their performances against those teams during the season. Let’s go through some scenarios for Utah and see which would be best for them to have a shot at winning the tournament.
Utah defeats UCLA, secures the No. 3 seed
This is the best-case scenario for several reasons. If Utah wins against UCLA, no matter what anyone else does, they will be No. 3. This would mean earning a bye in the first round and playing the winner of the No.6 and No. 11 game. The one fear at the No. 3 spot is that there is a chance Utah would have to play Oregon in their first game. Oregon is stuck in the 9-8 logjam that currently has four teams tied for the No. 4 spot. Oregon will play Washington in their final game, and a loss would make them likely to finish between sixth and eighth.
The best case for Utah would be for the Ducks to win against Washington because the Ducks would finish at No. 4 or No. 5. With a seeding like that, Oregon and Washington would play each other before facing Utah, meaning Utah would dodge at least one of them in a tournament run.
Utah loses to UCLA, finishes with No. 4 seed
This scenario is very unlikely because of how many teams are only a game behind Utah in the standings. Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State would all need to lose. Colorado plays USC, and Oregon States plays Washington State, so the odds of both teams losing is low. This would be all right for Utah in their first game because they would get a bye and play Colorado in the first round who the Utes have played well once and played poorly once. The problem would be the semifinal matchup against Washington.
Utah loses to UCLA, finishes with the No. 5 seed
This is the worst-case scenario for Utah. Utah would miss out on the first-round bye and be forced to play Cal in the first round. Cal has been terrible most of the year and Utah smoked them in their one meeting this year, but Cal is actually on a winning streak. The Golden Bears have won their last three games against Washington, Washington State, and Stanford. While the Golden Bears still aren’t exactly threatening, Utah doesn’t need to take chances.
The other issue is Utah would have to play Colorado, Oregon or UCLA in their next game. The Utes wouldn’t be favored in any of those games. Then they would follow that up by playing Washington. It probably can’t be emphasized enough that the less chance Utah has of playing the Huskies, the better.
Utah loses to UCLA, finishes with the No. 6 seed
This one is less likely than Utah getting the No. 5 seed, but it would actually be better for the Utes. It would require Oregon State, Colorado, and UCLA all to win their last game. If that happens, the matchups are actually more favorable for Utah. Utah would play Washington State in the first round, and after two convincing wins already this season, the Cougars won’t be scary.
After the first round, Utah would have to play Oregon State and then Arizona State to make it to the finals. Neither would be easy, but Utah has shown they can beat the Sun Devils, and the Beavers have been struggling since the last time they faced the Utes. Only after those games would Utah have the chance of playing Washington in the finals. If Utah is going to miss out on a first-round bye, they should hope to finish sixth rather than fifth.
Those are all the scenarios for Utah in the Pac-12 tournament. This last game takes on even more meaning against UCLA when one recognizes how much better off Utah will be with a No. 3 seed compared to any other seed they could finish with. Utah needs a win.
The last time the Utes played the Bruins, the Utes pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season. Utah was down by 22 with 12 minutes to play and came back to win the game on a Parker Van Dyke 3 at the buzzer. It was beautiful. If you want to relive that game, you can click here.
UCLA has been the most inconsistent team in Pac-12 play all year and is in competition with Arizona and Oregon for the most disappointing Pac-12 season. UCLA was picked to finish second in the Pac-12, and they haven’t come even remotely close to that. The Bruins hold losses this year to national powers such as Liberty, Belmont and Stanford. They started conference play off with a rough 6-7 record but went on a three-game winning to get back to 9-7 in conference play.
It looked like UCLA was finally playing up to the potential of all their highly rated recruits, and they had a real chance at a Top-4 seed heading into this week. That all changed when the Bruins got gorged by the Buffs in Colorado on Thursday. Colorado beat the Bruins 93-68, and UCLA trailed the entire game.
It was complete annihilation by Colorado, the Buffs dominated in every meaningful category except for 3-point percentage. The Bruins did well to shoot 38 percent for 3-point range, but they only managed to shoot 34 percent on all of their other shots. The Bruins allowed Colorado to shoot 49 percent from the field, got outrebounded by 12, and turned the ball over 11 times.
This is the question that follows UCLA into every single game, how badly are they going to want to win each game? When UCLA plays well, they’ve shown they can be dangerous, but a good UCLA team only shows up every few games. Sometimes, even when a good UCLA team shows up, they can’t maintain a high level of play for an entire game. This is evidenced by the last time they played Utah. The Bruins dominated for 28 minutes and looked completely lost for the final 12 minutes.
Another problem the Bruins have to overcome is they have been a terrible road team all year. The Bruins are 3-6 on the road, with their only road wins coming from California, Washington State, and a miracle comeback against Oregon. The Bruin’s average margin of defeat in their road losses has been 20 points per game. When UCLA loses on the road, the games have never been close.
Utah is in a very different situation than UCLA. The Bruins need a win just to have a shot at a high finish in the conference standings while the Utes continue to control their own destiny. UCLA just got embarrassed in their game while the Utes played one of their most complete games of the season.
The Utes beat USC at the Huntsman Center on Thursday night by the score of 83-74. The game wouldn’t have been that close if we didn’t have that usual end of game scenario where Utah has a sizeable lead, so the other team presses a bunch and then Utah commits a bunch of turnovers, thus allowing the other team to get closer than they should be.
Parker Van Dyke continued his work as the grim reaper for teams from Los Angeles. He will someday purge their souls of all uncleanliness. Van Dyke shot 7-12 from the field and had 20 points, 18 of which came from 3-pointers. Timmy Allen and Sedrick Barefield were both excellent offensively as well, finishing the game with 19 and 17 points respectively.
Perhaps most encouraging for the Utes was what Barefield did when he wasn’t scoring the ball. Barefield finished with five assists for the first time since the win against Arizona on February 14th. He also had seven rebounds, which is his high for the season. Barefield has struggled with his shot recently, but if he can impact the offense by facilitating the ball and through hustle, the Utes don’t need him to carry so much of a burden when it comes to shooting the ball.
Timmy Allen also finished with five assists which just makes him more of a terror for opposing defenses to guard.
The most surprising thing from the USC game was that Utah barely missed the presence of Jayce Johnson. Johnson was out because he suffered a foot injury in practice during the week. Coach K chose to start with Novak Topalovic at center, and he played well. Topalovic only finished with four points, but he slowed down Nick Rakocevic while grabbing seven rebounds and two blocks. Johnson is a better offensive weapon than Topalovic, but for now it seems like the Utes will be all right for as long as Johnson is sidelined. Currently, there have been no updates on Johnson’s status, so look for Topalovic to continue in the starting lineup.
Another lineup move to be aware of is Coach K putting Parker Van Dyke and Donnie Tillman into the starting lineup to replace Riley Battin and Both Gach. Tillman and Van Dyke were excellent as starters and Tillman and Gach took out some anger on the rim by absolutely destroying some USC defenders on several dunks.
Coach K has been experimenting with the lineup all season, and the forced changes from Johnson being out seemed to help the Utes refresh their offense. This is the best possible time for Utah to come together, because everything they’ve fought for all season will be riding on this last game. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Utah loses, but it would be a wonderful way to finish the season against UCLA. No matter what happens though, let’s take a moment to watch this one more time. Go Utes.