SALT LAKE CITY — Pretty good.
But not that good.
Hello, Utes 2019... and most years, actually.
The Utes’ hold on second place in the Pac-12 slipped away as quickly as it arrived, via a 98-87 loss to Arizona State on Saturday.
Bad things happen when your game is missing its flourish.
If the Utes never get back to second place, they’ve shown three things this season. First, they shouldn’t be an easy out in the conference tournament. They were given up for dead a few weeks ago and are still in the top one-third of the conference. Second, this will be a respectable team next year if everyone returns that can. Saturday’s game wasn’t out of reach until Sederick Barefield lost the ball out of bounds with 2:28 remaining and the Utes trailing by nine.
They finished the game and they’ll finish the season as they always do, i.e. better than expected, worse than on top.
It’s not like they lost to a team they should have beaten. Although they beat Arizona State in Tempe, they also hosted a team that’s even more mercurial than they are. Utah has run hot and cold this year. Arizona State has been brilliant and boorish. The Sun Devils beat No. 1 Kansas, as well as Washington — the conference’s best team — yet lost to Washington State.
The Utes showed they aren’t good enough to stay alone in second place, where they began the day. That happens when you spend most of the night missing two elements that upwardly mobile teams have: good perimeter scoring and reliable free-throw shooting. Utah went 8 of 23 (35 percent) from 3-point range; ASU went 10-22 (46 percent). From the line, Utah made 23 of 36 (64 percent), while ASU went 20-24 (83 percent).
Utah and ASU are the embodiment of the currently conflicted Pac-12. Now 14-11 overall and 8-5 in conference, the Utes have Washington, Washington State, Colorado, USC and UCLA left on the schedule. Washington is the only remaining opponent the Utes haven’t defeated.
So plan on a win in Seattle and a loss in Pullman.
That’s how it goes for teams not all the way there.
The Utes fell behind by 13, mostly by trading 2-point buckets for 3-pointers.
Parker Van Dyke brought the Utes back into the game all by his lonesome with 12 points in eight first-half minutes. Either nobody is watching film, or Van Dyke is the best-kept secret since the Culper Ring. For the second straight game he scored 15 points in the first half. But he got only two thereafter. In the last two games combined he went 8-10 from distance in the first half. But the second half was another story. The Sun Devils buckled down on him and bore down offensively. They never blew the game open but never let the Utes get closer than their five-point halftime deficit.
ASU, of course, is the Jekyll-Hyde of the Pac-12. The Sun Devils tantalize and mesmerize but ultimately disappoint. Last year they won 12 consecutive games to start — including No. 2-ranked Kansas — but finished with a losing conference record. This year they beat Kansas, but followed with a loss to Princeton. All of which made them a dangerous opponent for the Utes.
Somewhere Dick Vitale is grinding his teeth.
Influential KenPom power ranking had the Utes No. 108 through Thursday’s games. That was eight spots behind Akron, which had an identical 14-10 record. This is how much respect the once-lordly Pac-12 has lost: Georgia Tech and Texas A&M are several games below .500 and still rated ahead of the Utes by KenPom. The conference is 7-26 this year against power conference teams. There isn’t a Pac-12 team rated among KenPom’s top 50 in strength of schedule. The league is to strength of schedule what parsley is to a ribeye steak.19 comments on this story
The conference’s ongoing competitive issues just won’t go away, regardless of what happened between ASU and Utah. Coaches like Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak claim the league is so doggone competitive that teams cannibalize one another. Nobody is buying it. Last year just two teams made the NCAA field. Sports Illustrated’s midweek bracket watch on Thursday had only one team from the Pac-12 (Washington) seeded, while the Mountain West had two.
Saturday night’s game looked like a matchup between teams nobody is paying attention to.