As March Madness nears, we take a look at what it will take for BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State and Utah Valley University to qualify for the NCAA tournament. (Our apologies to Southern Utah, which cannot qualify for Big Sky tournament.) We focus on three key dates for each team.
The Utes are 0-6 on the road this season and travel this weekend to USC and UCLA for their second-to-last road trip of the year. While both games are must-wins for Utah, a road win over a top 20 RPI school like UCLA Saturday would certainly be huge for Utah’s mostly lackluster tournament resume. The Utes took care of the Bruins earlier this season, but Utah will likely need a big road win to make the NCAA tournament. Three of Utah’s final four road games of the season are against current top 50 RPI schools (UCLA, Cal, Stanford), but UCLA would be the best win of the three.
Home or road, a win over the current No. 2 team in the country and No. 2 RPI team would be a huge resume-booster, especially at the end of the season. The NCAA selection committee has a history of favoring teams that end the season hot, and beating a team like Arizona later in the season usually carries more weight than if it went down in November. A win over Arizona wouldn't be a golden ticket to the NCAA tournament, but it would certainly open Utah’s case as a bubble team, especially if Utah can take care of USC and UCLA heading into the Arizona matchup.
The Utes are essentially playing with their backs against the wall, so they will either need to go on a winning streak to close out the regular season or win the Pac-12 tournament to get a ticket to the Big Dance as it stands now. Here’s what is holding them back:
• No. 145 strength of schedule; No. 347 non-conference strength of schedule. (The committee also has a history of punishing weak non-conference schedules.)
• Only 10 road games all season; 0-6 on the road thus far.
• Outside the top 100 in the current RPI rankings.
The good news is the season is not over yet. If the Utes can pull together a run late in the regular season, an at-large bid still isn't completely out of the picture. Also, the tournament is a gold mine for the Pac-12, considering it currently has seven top 50-ranked RPI teams and 10 teams in or near the top 100.
With BYU sporting a 3-6 road record this season, the Cougars need a sweep of their road trip this weekend that starts at Pacific. Winning at Saint Mary's on Saturday will be difficult — the Cougars have lost there both times since joining the WCC — but a victory would keep BYU in the at-large discussion for the NCAA tournament. The Cougars could be bolstered by their win over the Gaels on Feb. 1 when BYU rallied from an early 14-point deficit to win by 13.
The Cougars have had several chances to impress the NCAA selection committee with a bold non-conference schedule. And while BYU beat both Texas and Stanford, it's likely that the Cougars' losses to teams like Wichita State, Iowa State, UMass and Oregon stand out more as missed opportunities. This game will provide the Cougars with a final regular-season chance to earn a quality win.
ESPN's current bracketology has the Cougars on the bubble as one of the last four byes in the NCAA tournament. Obviously a tournament title would garner BYU an automatic ticket, but the Cougars haven't won a league tournament since 2001. BYU may need a trip to the WCC tournament final to stay in the last four in, and if the Cougars can hold onto the No. 2 seed, it will make that path easier.
Saturday's matchup against the Rebels will be important because the Aggies, winners of three straight, want to keep the good vibes going because they face No. 5 San Diego State on the road three days later. UNLV smashed USU 62-42 in Las Vegas on Jan. 22 as the Aggies shot just 2 of 17 from the 3-point line.
The Aggies are currently in seventh place in the Mountain West standings, trailing fifth-place Wyoming by 1½ games. Seeds 1 through 5 receive a bye in the Mountain West Tournament, so securing the fifth spot on the final day of the conference play would go a long way to helping the Aggies make a run.
ESPN's bracketology has the MWC getting just two NCAA tournament bids — San Diego State as a No. 2 seed and New Mexico as a No. 8. No other team, including the Aggies, look like they'll get an at-large bid, so winning the conference tourney is critical. USU will have to pick its poison, likely having to go through either No. 5 San Diego State or a 20-plus-win over a New Mexico team to secure the MWC's automatic bid — and that's to say nothing of the possibility of playing UNLV on its home floor.
The Wildcats are three games ahead of four teams tied for second place. Montana is the only one of these four that Weber State still has to face on the road. The Wildcats beat the Grizzlies 68-63 at home, so this game will be a challenge as they try to stay on top of the Big Sky standings.
Weber State has lost only two games in conference so far this season. The Wildcats have already avenged their loss to Northern Colorado, but they have yet to get back at Sacramento State. The Hornets beat the Wildcats 78-75 in overtime on Feb. 1. Therefore, Weber State fans will be looking for sweet revenge.
Weber State’s only hope of reaching the NCAA tournament is to win the Big Sky. Last year’s squad couldn’t get in despite having a 26-6 record after it fell in the Big Sky championship game against Montana. Even an NIT bid isn’t a given should the Wildcats come up short. Weber State will likely go to the CIT again if it doesn't win the tournament.
Seattle University is only 3-6 in conference play, but it is a deceptively good team, going 11-11 overall on the season. UVU squeaked out a one-point victory on the road against Seattle in late January, so Seattle will be looking for revenge. Factor in the potential trap game status of this game and the implications it could have on the conference tournament, and this game looks more and more like a must-win for the Wolverines.
This contest could be a must-win for the Wolverines to grab the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament at the end of the season. Whether it is or not, UVU will be looking to exact revenge on its only loss in conference play, an embarrassing 72-49 beat-down on Feb. 1 against New Mexico State.
Of course if UVU wants to make the NCAA tournament, it has to win the conference tournament in Las Vegas. And right now, that looks like a good possibility. UVU is sitting a good game and a half in front of Grand Canyon and New Mexico State for sole possession of first place in the WAC. If UVU can grab that No. 1 seed, it will be the favorite to make the NCAA tournament from the WAC.