by Daniel Olsen
They say that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. While several close losses could prove to be the difference between tournament bids and staying home, college basketball teams in Utah have been noticed for their abilities to compete in close games.
The Utah State Aggies have lost a total of nine games by single digits this season. Six of those losses were by a possession or less. However, that doesn’t mean all their close games were a failure. They won two out of their three overtime games this season. They beat a Big 12 team in Oklahoma to win the Myrtle Beach Classic.
The problem isn’t as much that the Aggies lost these close games. It’s who they lost to. With close losses to bad teams like Air Force, Nevada and UC Davis, they will now need to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament to steal a bid. They are also 1-7 in games vs the current top 4 seeds in the conference with the lone win being a 18 point beat down of San Diego State. That game was played at home, so it will be interesting to see how many Q1 wins the Aggies end up with. So far it seems like San Diego State and Oklahoma may be the lone candidates.
Even if the Aggies fail to make the NCAA Tournament, they have a great chance to make the NIT given how deep the Mountain West has been this year.
The Cougars have the best chance to go dancing of any team in the state. That is because they are the only team that likely won’t need to win their conference tournament to go dancing. This is good news as BYU hasn’t won it all since 2001 when they won the Mountain West Tournament. It certainly isn’t easy with a team like Gonzaga in the conference.
The Cougars have lost five games this year by single digits. Even without the loss to woeful Pacific, their resume would have improved tremendously. Now they will need to advance at least one round and possibly more in the WCC Tournament to be considered for an at-large bid. That might put them in Dayton, Ohio to play with the other First Four play-in games. Joe Lunardi currently has them as one of the first four teams out in his latest bracketology rankings.
Expect to see reigning WCC Freshman Player of the Week Fousseyni Traore play a big factor in BYU’s success. If he can give Alex Barcello some relief, the Cougars could win just enough games to go dancing.
The Utes have been bitten the hardest by the clutch bug as they have lost a state high nine games by single digits. This has resulted in the worst record in the state (11-18). The strength of schedule is certainly there as they have played ranked teams five times in PAC-12 play. However, they have not competed well in those games as all but one were double-digit losses.
While they started out strong with a 7-3 record in the non-conference slate, the Utes have managed just four wins in PAC-12 play. Barring a miraculous bid-stealer run in the PAC-12 Tournament, they won’t be playing any sort of tournament deep into March.
This task will be more challenging than the one Craig Smith had at Utah State. There, he dominated with NBA caliber players in a mid-major conference. Now he is trying to do the opposite: compete in a power league full of NBA talent while fielding mid-major players. That has to change for the Utes to move up the ranks in future years.
Getting a Big Sky Bid
With UVU falling back to fifth in the WAC and Dixie State ineligible, it’s time to turn the attention to a one-bid league with two Utah teams near the top: The Big Sky Conference.
The Southern Utah Thunderbirds and Weber State Wildcats are currently second and third in the Big Sky Conference standings. For the state of Utah to get another bid, one of these two teams will need to win the one-bid conference. That means they will likely have to beat Montana State, the best team in the conference.
The best case scenario would be for BYU, USU, and either Weber State or SUU to get in. The worst case would be for all teams to go home early and get left out. The most likely scenario is that BYU gets in and possibly one other team. The jury is still out on what will happen.
Featured image courtesy Spenser Heaps, Deseret News