It’s pretty wild. I don’t know if there’s ever been a season within our conference that’s maybe been that tight from top to bottom. —Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak
SALT LAKE CITY — Things are tight, make that very tight, in the Pac-12. Entering the final three weeks of conference play, 10 teams are still in contention for first-round byes in next month’s Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The gap between first-place Arizona and 10th-place Oregon State is just 4½ games. Every team ahead of the Beavers is within three games of the Wildcats. The eight teams in the middle, including Utah, are separated by one game or less.
Simply put, it’s a logjam as the Utes (15-9, 7-6) embark on their final road trip of the regular season. They’ll visit Washington (17-8, 7-5) on Thursday and last-place Washington State (9-15, 1-11) on Saturday.
If the Pac-12 tourney began today, Utah would be the No. 7 seed. The Utes have their sights set on a top-four finish and an opening-round bye.
However, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak insists they’re approaching the situation one game at a time.
Aaron Thorup, Deseret News
“It’s all Washington. There’s nothing beyond that. I don’t know if the Pac-12 has ever had a year with a game, game-and-a-half separating second from 10th,” Krystkowiak said. “So it’s a little bit of a goofy year within our conference but, you know, this is the first of five that we have left. Washington is playing great.”
Krystkowiak added that the Huskies are a team being mentioned in NCAA Tournament projections. As such, he views Thursday’s game in Seattle almost as a postseason affair.
“It’s not as though it would secure anything,” Krystkowiak said. “But, to me, with the win at Washington I think we would have to do something pretty special in Vegas to be put in that conversation. Right now, I think we’re on the outside looking in, and that would be a quality road win.”
The four remaining games after that are really irrelevant, he continued, because there’s an awful lot of focus and attention placed on the Huskies at this point.
Even so, Krystkowiak has a view of the big picture as teams jockey for position in the Pac-12. He noted it could end up a jumbled mess three weeks from now.
Aaron Thorup, Deseret News
“It’s pretty wild. I don’t know if there’s ever been a season within our conference that’s maybe been that tight from top to bottom,” Krystkowiak said. “Teams look like they’re awfully good one weekend and then the next weekend (have a) completely different look. A lot of that, I think, is home court, and that’s something that we’re going to address with our team.”
Krystkowiak acknowledged that the Utes have laid three eggs on the road — at UCLA, USC and Colorado — and they’ve got to figure out a way to travel.
“We’ve talked within our program, a little bit, that defense travels,” he said.
Utah defended well in last week’s victories at home over Stanford and California. It’s something Krystkowiak hopes the Utes will continue to hang their hats on when heading out on the road in Washington.
That said, Krystkowiak returned his focus to the task at hand.
“So we’ll tackle the Huskies and then before long we’re going to see how it all shakes out,” Krystkowiak said.
Junior guard Sedrick Barefield said the mindset is to go out next game and get a “W.” He acknowledged it’s encouraging to know if they do get a win at Washington it’ll put them in a good position.
Krystkowiak has repeatedly said that a top-four finish remains a goal until someone tells him it is no longer possible. The players feel the same way.
“It’s definitely a big deal. You want to have that first-round bye,” Barefield said. “But I think, as a team, we have that in the back of our head but we don’t approach it that way. Because as competitors we just want to go out there and win every single game.”
Barefield, though, admits that the Washington game does have a little bit of a playoff flair.
“I think that it’s a game where we have to be ready or extra motivated,” he said. “We definitely want to win this game and put ourselves in a good position moving forward — not just next game, but the next few games.” Following the trip to the Washington schools, Utah closes out the regular season with home games against UCLA, USC and Colorado.
Utah (15-9, 7-6) at Washington (17-8, 7-5)
Alaska Airlines Arena, Seattle
Thursday, 7 p.m (MST)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM