By Nate Mathis
Just in time for postseason play, let’s recap the road the Runnin’ Utes have traveled to get to where they stand today.
Back on October 23rd when the Pac-12 released its official pre-season ranking predictions, no one was surprised to see Arizona atop the polls. But right below was them was the Runnin’ Utes of Utah, the same Runnin’ Utes who had won just 6 games a few years back. Utah fans everywhere were cautiously optimistic of their program’s apparent return to national prominence in the college basketball world. A pre-season Top 25 ranking, the return of Delon Wright, and a promising 2013-2014 campaign were all evidence that the Utes were ready to make the step to join the heavyweights of the college basketball world this season.
An early setback on the road to SDSU was quickly forgotten as the Utes took down then ranked Wichita State, which ended the Shockers nation best 35 game regular season win streak (including seven straight against ranked opponents). This win was validated a week later with a victory in the Marriot Center against BYU. Despite losing by one possession to Kansas in what was basically a home game for the Jayhawks, the Utes had solidified themselves as a legitimate Top 20 team and a force to be reckoned with in their pursuit for a Pac-12 Championship.
The Utes then went on a rampage, winning their next seven games by an average margin of 23 points. At this point the Utes were ranked 8th in the country, favorites (ahead of 10th ranked Arizona) to win the Pac-12, and were being mentioned by many national pundits as way-too-early legitimate contenders for a run to the Elite 8 or Final Four. The thought running through many Utah fan’s heads at this point: “could this be the best team the school as produced since Majerus’ 1998 team?”
A complete dismantling at the hands of Arizona quickly brought the Utes back to earth. With their guard up they went on to win seven of their next eight games, bringing us to the final five games of the season.
The Utes were still in contention for a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament heading into the Oregon game on February 22nd. I think it was after this humbling loss that many fans and observers around the country began to realize that while good, maybe this Utah team wasn’t as great as advertised over the last few months. After losing the home matchup with Arizona (their first and only loss at home) the last chance at grasping a share of the Pac-12 title had slipped away. It was after this loss to Arizona that it really hit home for the fan base.
This is a fan base that has seen first-hand what Final Four caliber team looks like. They know what the bar is for a truly great team, and it was as this point most of us realized that this team isn’t one. These thoughts and doubts were solidified as the Utes capped off the season with an ugly loss to a Washington team that had lost 10 of its last 11 games, causing them to finish a disappointing 3rd in the Pac-12 standings.
At this juncture many Utah fans are unsure of what their expectations should be for this team as we head into post-season play. Pending Pac-12 tournament results, many experts have the Utes as low as a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament – disappointing when you consider most had them as a lock for a 3 seed less than two weeks ago. But with dangerous depth and a Wooden Award finalist in Delon Wright, the Utes are a scary matchup for whomever they end up drawing in the NCAA Tournament next week.
Despite the disappointing finish to the season (losing 3 of their last 5 games and finishing 3rd in the Pac-12), this season has been an amazing journey and a gigantic step forward for a program that is still digging their way out of perhaps the deepest hole they’ve been in decades.
Up next for the Utes is a showdown with the Stanford Cardinal tonight at 9:30 PM MST.
Interesting facts and figures:
- Utah is currently experiencing their longest NCAA Tournament bid drought since 1966-1977.
- Utah and Arizona St. are the only two Pac-12 teams to have never won the Pac-12 regular season or tournament championship.
- The Utes spent 17 out of 18 weeks ranked in the Top 25 this season