View from the Booth: Utes show signs of real progress

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 7:57 p.m. MST

Here we are heading into the final week of the regular season in college basketball and the Mountain West Conference. It seems like just the other day the season was tipping off in November.

While things seem pretty settled at the top of the MWC, with BYU and San Diego State battling for the top spot and perhaps a No. 1 seed in March Madness, things are much less clear in the next five spots below.

UNLV and Colorado State are battling for the third and fourth spots in the league right now, with Lon Kruger's Rebels holding a half-game lead over the Rams.

After an extremely rough start in league play, Jim Boylen's Runnin' Utes find themselves alone in fifth place and playing better basketball of late, winning three in a row. This is where I picked the Utes to finish on my preseason ballot I sent in back in October.

Can the Utes keep this up? Will they be able to hold on to fifth place? They have two games remaining against teams that are above them in the standings and still battling for postseason position of their own: at Colorado State next Wednesday and home against UNLV to close the regular season on March 5.

Utah lost to both CSU and UNLV the first time around, but this Ute squad has grown up and is playing better basketball now. Utah holds a one-game lead over the New Mexico Lobos and owns the tiebreaker based on the Utes' season sweep.

The Lobos have three games left: at TCU, at BYU, and at home against Air Force. The way Steve Alford's team is playing right now, I would be shocked if they won all three games.

So if Utah can win at least one of their last two games, I'd expect the Utes to secure the fifth seed in the MWC tourney in Las Vegas in two weeks.

Let me keep my Crimson Cap on for just a bit longer here. I know that there's been a ton of discussion among Ute fans and media members about the future and direction of the Utah basketball program. It seems to be the only question anyone wants to ask me about these days.

My response to anyone who asks is simple and at the same time complex. I completely understand the frustration Ute fans have felt with the results on the floor the last two seasons. I don't have a clue what will happen at the end of the season — that decision rests well above my pay grade.

But what I do know is I've seen this team get better as the season progressed. The task of integrating five new players into the lineup along with a relatively inexperienced returning team has been a challenge, but the results are beginning to show.

A strong finish to the season could be a nice springboard into next season, with the entire squad returning as the Utes enter the new world of the Pac-12.

Two regular-season games remain and then it's off to Vegas for a March Madness appetizer. Let's see how the Utes respond and if the growth continues.

Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.

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