LAS VEGAS — It's that time of the year when the slate gets wiped clean and hope springs eternal. It's tourney time in college basketball. This week, teams from around the Mountain West Conference are gathering in Las Vegas to crown a postseason champion and grant automatic berths in the NCAA men's and women's tournaments.
Most look at BYU, San Diego State and maybe the host school UNLV as the favorites this week at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Utes head into tonight's quarterfinal game as the seventh seed after finishing the conference season at 6-10 overall.
For their 16-game effort over the last two months, the Utes get the pleasure of drawing a team — the Aztecs of San Diego State — that's only lost twice all season long. Steve Fisher's team swept the season series with a close affair in Salt Lake City and a rout at Viejas Arena.
Recent results and the two meetings with the Aztecs this season would tell you that Utah doesn't stand much of a chance in this one tonight. Throw in the fact that the Runnin' Utes' best player, Will Clyburn, has been playing on one foot for the last two weeks and things begin to take on an even more grim appearance.
I've been around this team all season long, and the one thing that I can tell you is that the camaraderie and unity has been outstanding. For a team that has gone through more lows than highs, the Utes remain a hard-working and unified squad.
The results may not be there, but I can tell you that Jim Boylen and his staff have not lost this basketball team.
In many ways, this has been a maddening and unpredictable season and team to cover. The Utes were swept by the Air Force Falcons, yet were able to complete a season sweep of an extremely talented New Mexico squad, including a win at The Pit without Clyburn.
On many nights, the Utes would play good defense, yet on the offensive end kill themselves with turnovers or an inability to put the ball in the basket. Then, on the nights when the offense executed, an inability to play with the toughness their coach sought would derail a possible win.
Yet, through the Utes' 13 wins and 17 losses, they still sit here today with an opportunity to make fans around the state, conference and country forget about the disappointment of a second straight losing season, if they can put together 40 great minutes of basketball tonight.
You have to go back to 2006 to find the last time a seventh seed took down a No. 2 seed at the Mountain West tournament. That year, the Brandon Ewing/Justin Williams-led Wyoming Cowboys knocked off the Air Force Falcons. That upset took place at the Pepsi Center in Denver; a No. 7 seed has never beaten a No. 2 seed in Las Vegas.
So what has to happen tonight for the Utes' season to continue? Well, here are three things that are an absolute must:
1) Make shots: I know it sounds pretty elementary, but it's hard for San Diego State to get run-outs and fast breaks off made shots, and that's how the Aztecs generate a ton of their offense.
2) Control the glass: There isn't a more relentless rebounding team in the MWC than San Diego State. If Utah can win the battle of the boards, then they will have a fighting chance in the game.
3) Play with toughness: The one knock on this team from beginning of the season to end is that they don't play very tough. Boylen likes to talk about "playing in the street." Well, to beat SDSU, the Utes will have to match the Aztecs' physicality and toughness.
I'm looking forward to a great tournament in Las Vegas this weekend and would love nothing more than to see Boylen's guys give Ute fans a nice end to what's been a difficult season.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah tonight at 7 and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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