by Daniel Olsen
The month of March is upon us and that means it’s time to see which teams in Utah have the best chance to join the madness of the NCAA tournament. Where is BYU projected among mock brackets? Is there any shot for the Aggies to burst the NCAA bubble and get an at-large bid? Which team from Utah has the best chance to win in the one bid leagues like the WAC or Big Sky? It’s time to break down the teams with the best odds to make the NCAA tournament in the Beehive State.
The reason the Cougars are at the top of this list is they have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat. They did get the one freebie loss to Pepperdine but other than that, they have no bad losses. They can get in as an at-large even if they lose in the conference tournament. They will be the favorite in the semifinals but most likely will lose to the number one team in the nation in the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They should get a favorable seed regardless based on most mock brackets. Currently they are projected to be a seven seed and face Rutgers in the Round of 64.
Once projected to get as many as four teams into the March Madness tournament, the Mountain West now looks like it might get just two. With Boise State losing to Fresno, the Aggies have claimed possession of third place in the conference. They can move up to second this week by sweeping their opponents and hoping for a Colorado State loss to Nevada on Senior Night. USU won their make-up game against Wyoming last night and they play Fresno State tomorrow. They may get in with a championship appearance but they need to hope that other bubble teams lose. Their best bet is to win the conference tournament and secure the auto bid again.
This could be the best chance ever that the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah have ever had to make the NCAA tournament as a member of the Big Sky. The last time they made the tournament was in 2001 as a member of the Summit League (MCC at the time). They are currently battling with Eastern Washington for first place in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. If the Thunderbirds can play to their potential, they should advance deep next week in Boise. They will need to win the conference tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. That is one of the difficulties of being in a one-bid league.
4. Weber State
Right on the heels of the Thunderbirds is their rival from the north: the Weber State Wildcats. The men’s team in Ogden has rattled off six straight wins and appear to be a strong contender for the NCAA tournament. Like SUU, they will also need to win the conference tournament to earn a spot in the Big Dance. It’s possible these two teams could face each other at some point in the Big Sky conference tournament to battle for another bid from the Beehive State.
The Wolverines of the Western Athletic Conference will have an opportunity to earn a bid when the WAC tournament takes place in Orleans Arena next week in Las Vegas. In just the second year under coach Mark Madsen, the Wolverines already sit in second place in the conference standings. They can move up if they sweep Grand Canyon in the back-to-back this weekend.
Although they have earned a few impressive wins, the Runnin’ Utes have run themselves out of any chance at an at large bid with the ninth best record in the Pac-12 conference. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but inconsistency killed the Utes this season. Their best win was against USC recently and they are one of the top seeds in the conference this season. However, their worst loss was to the last place California Bears. They have proven they can beat anybody but they can also lose to anybody. The Utes better find a way to win the Pac-12 because the auto-bid is the only shot they have at the NCAA tournament.
7. Dixie State
The Trailblazers are still transitioning from the JV to the varsity ranks of college basketball. Now they have moved up to the Division I ranks, they are competing in the WAC in basketball. They could possibly play their in-state rival UVU in the quarterfinals. They split the regular season series so it is possible that they could sneak in as a 15 or 16 seed if they can pull off an impressive run and win the conference tournament.
Prediction: Two teams get in. BYU will get the at-large even if they lose in their conference tournament and then either USU or one of the Big Sky teams will get in. Besides BYU, every other team will likely have to win their conference tournament and get the auto-bid and hear their name on Selection Sunday. Because USU is a proven product, they will be most likely to earn the second ticket for the state to the Big Dance.
Had the 2020 NCAA Tournament not been cancelled due to the pandemic, BYU and USU would have both participated. The last time two teams punched their ticket from the Beehive State was in 2016. That year, Utah and Weber State made it. Times have certainly changed as they always do in college basketball. The best teams will win in the madness that is already beginning in March.
Eli Lucero/Herald Journal via AP