The opener of the Pac-12 conference tournament was a battle between the eight and nine seeds – Utah and Washington – for the right to keep their faint NCAA Tournament hopes alive and the right to face one-seed Arizona on Thursday. Utah controlled the first half, but then let up and allowed the Huskies back into it, before putting together a 7-1 run in the final minute to provide the final margin of victory. For the Utes, this outcome leaves us with two important questions: 1) can they hang with Arizona on Thursday and 2) what will it take for them to earn an NCAA Tournament bid?
For the first question, let’s give an unabashed “yes.” The last time these two teams met – in Salt Lake City on February 19 – the Utes took the Wildcats to overtime before succumbing by four points. Back in January at the McKale Center, it was a tie game with less than ten minutes to play before the Wildcats turned up the defensive juice and force the Utes to miss eight of their final ten field goal attempts en route to a nine-point win. But on both of those occasions, Utah looked like a team that very much deserved to be on the floor with Arizona. In fact, even last year when the Utes struggled to just five regular season conference wins, they played the Wildcats tight (two losses by a total of seven points). For Utah, the key may be rebounding. In their overtime loss to the Wildcats, the Utes actually got the better end of the deal on the glass, but earlier in the year it was a disaster as the ‘Cats (who still had Brandon Ashley at the time) grabbed 20 offensive rebounds – the difference in an otherwise tight game. Jordan Loveridge, along with the three-headed center of Jeremy Olsen, Dallin Bachynski and Renan Lenz will need to be strong up front against the likes of Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, quite a different challenge than the one they faced on Wednesday against an undersized Washington squad.
As for the second question, the Utes still really need to win this tournament if they want to feel secure on Selection Sunday. Yes, a win over Arizona in the quarters would be a nice scalp, and even a win over Colorado or Cal in the semifinals would be nice. But given the overall weakness of their non-conference schedule, the Utes still have a lot of work to do, resume-wise.