SALT LAKE CITY — Utah considers itself a devoted basketball state, but you wouldn’t know it by the turnout at Wednesday’s NIT game between the Utes and UC Davis. The place was as empty as a dead-end street. Six thousand upper-bowl seats were screened by curtains, so everyone sat scattered in clusters below.
That’s understandable, but it’s still a shame. It was a hotly contested game the Utes didn’t secure until late. But almost nobody on the outside wants to celebrate being skipped by the NCAA Tournament.
There were several respectable local teams this year. Utah, BYU, Utah Valley and Weber State had good records, but didn’t win enough key games to be included in the main event. Utah State fired its coach and Southern Utah had an awful season, despite a nice conference tournament run.
Weber State sensibly declined an invitation to the third-tier College Basketball Invitational after losing in the Big Sky quarterfinals. BYU’s hope of an NCAA invitation was derailed in the West Coast Conference Tournament, while Utah lost its Pac-12 tourney opener.
As one Ute fan sardonically noted online, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Utah Valley hosted a CBI game Tuesday, routing Eastern Washington, so the Wolverines are still playing, if anyone cares. Not many do. Only 997 fans showed up.
BYU lost a nail-biter at Stanford Wednesday in the NIT.
What Utah’s game with UC Davis lacked in importance and attendance (3,452) was reclaimed in emotion. The second quarter was delayed while Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak collected two technicals and an ejection. He went nearly to the midcourt line to storm at an official. On the way out, he overturned a chair.
Despite the fireworks, it was a relatively quiet basketball night in Utah. Not a big game to be found.
“If you say, gosh, are you taking a team lightly in the NIT, or are you disappointed at all — not at all,” said assistant coach Tommy Connor. “We were excited to play.”
While missing out on the NCAA Tournament isn’t unprecedented for the state, back-to-back whiffs virtually are. Before 2017 and 2018, the last time that happened was in 1953 and 1954. That was 10 years before Krystkowiak was born and three years before BYU’s Dave Rose. It was also before the NCAA Tournament mattered. The NIT, now basketball’s consolation prize, was No. 1.
Those years, Utah went a combined 22-28, while USU was 31-26. BYU went 40-19 and was in the NIT, losing in the first round both times.
The state of Utah has seen individual seasons when nobody went to the NCAA event. No one made the field in 2013, 1994, 1989, 1985, 1982, 1976, 1974, 1967 and 1958. But you’d have to go back to the film “From Here to Eternity” to find back-to-back blanks.
Nowadays there are twice as many Div. I teams from Utah, and 68 NCAA tourney berths instead of 22, but more teams competing. Either way, here sits Beehive State basketball, playing for table scraps.
In its best light, the NIT can alleviate a disappointing season. In another sense, it’s salt in the wound. Some teams see it as the chance to play in New York in the junior Final Four, but many don’t want to be there. An early loss is piling on.
When the Utes played in the NIT in 2001, having reached the NCAA’s Final Four just three years earlier, they were booed as they left the court for the last time.
“We deserved it,” former Ute Britton Johnsen says today.
The Utes played like it mattered in Wednesday’s 69-59 win. They overcame an 11-point first-half deficit, taking the lead on the first shot of the fourth quarter, acting like, well, they’d been there.
They have. It was Utah’s 14th NIT appearance, including last season. But this year the Utes wanted to attend, even if no one else did.
“We’re thrilled to be in it,” Connor said. “We’re thrilled to continue to play.”