Today marks the beginning of what college basketball coaches like to call the “third season” or the postseason of college basketball. We are done with the first two phases: the non-conference and conference seasons, now it’s on to the start of the “Madness” that is college basketball in the month of March.
For Larry Krystkowiak and the Runnin’ Utes, it’s been an interesting two phases of the season so far. The non-conference season was one of improvement but also some disappointment in home losses to Sacramento State and Cal Northridge. They surpassed last year’s win total before the new year, but also felt like they left more wins on the table.
Then as Pac-12 play began, it was a series of close but heartbreaking defeats, followed by some head-scratching performances, before finally putting back-to-back wins together and capping the conference season with their first win over a ranked team in four years.
So that brings us to tonight’s first-round Pac-12 tourney game, a No. 7 vs. No. 10 matchup against the USC Trojans. The Utes will be playing a team that beat Utah 76-59 back on Jan. 12 and then proceeded to fire its head coach, Kevin O’Neill, after which the team got better.
The Trojans' overall record, 14-17, is only one game better than Utah’s, but their conference mark of 9-9 is four games better than the Utes posted. However, recently history and momentum is squarely on Utah’s side heading into tonight’s meeting. The Utes closed the season with back-to-back wins over Oregon State and Oregon, while USC finished with back-to-back losses at Washington and at Washington State.
In addition, USC 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon has been suspended indefinitely for his role in an incident in the early morning hours Sunday in Spokane. Dedmon went for 13 points and 13 rebounds in the Trojans' win in Salt Lake City.
What’s unknown heading into Utah’s opening-round game is what if anything can be carried over from the regular season finale against Oregon. How much can the confidence of seeing the ball go into the basket against a nationally ranked team help in a neutral site tournament setting? I’m not sure, but I know that it can’t hurt. This Utah team has been more than solid defensively all season, but has struggled mightily at times on the offensive end of the floor, and sometimes open and good looks just wouldn’t fall.
Saturday, those looks did fall, and so did the Ducks at the Huntsman Center. There’s no reason to believe that the same type effort from Utah wouldn’t result in a similar finish at the MGM.
There isn’t anything that could happen today or tomorrow or frankly all week at the Pac-12 Tournament that would surprise me. It’s been that kind of year so far. The Utes were tabbed to finish dead last in the preseason polls and exceeded those expectations by a couple of places.
Whether they win or not tonight remains to be seen, but I can tell you this: the way that Krystkowiak’s team has played most of this season and especially the last two games shows they are about the last team any higher seed wants to see this week in Las Vegas.