Utah is the biggest surprise of the Pac-12 men’s basketball season. Slotted 10th in the preseason media poll, the Utes are in second place, two games behind UCLA in the loss column and churning toward an opening-round bye in the conference tournament.
But win totals and placement in the standings don’t mean squat on Selection Sunday. The Utes (14-7, 7-3) could be a top-four seed in Las Vegas and get left out of the NCAA Tournament.
Below the surface, trouble lurks.
They are lacking in the metrics that matter most to the NCAA selection committee.
Utah’s NET ranking (No. 48) is indicative of a team on the bubble.
Only two of its 14 wins are of the Quadrant I variety (the highest quality).
More damaging, however, is the number at the other end of the victory spectrum: Eight of the 14 are considered Quadrant IV (the lowest quality).
No team from a Power Six conference has more.
The reason for all those low-level wins? Utah’s nonconference schedule. Second-year coach Craig Smith crafted a lineup that fit the trajectory of his program. The Utes were 11-20 last season and in search of victories and momentum. Early-season wins were essential.
Their on-court performance is not only ahead of schedule; it’s ahead of the schedule.
According to the Pomeroy advanced metrics, Utah’s nonconference schedule strength is No. 314 nationally (out of 363 teams). The Utes beat Georgia Tech and played Mississippi State, Brigham Young and TCU, but only one of the four (TCU) would make the NCAA Tournament if the field were selected today.
BYU is plodding along in the West Coast Conference.
Mississippi State is 1-6 in the SEC.
Georgia Tech is 1-8 in the ACC.
The rest of the schedule is stocked with second-rate foes and classic cream puffs: Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho State, Long Island, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, UTSA and St. Thomas (of Minnesota).
The selection committee won’t take kindly to that lineup, leaving Utah with just two paths into the NCAAs:
• Win the Pac-12 Tournament and its accompanying automatic bid;
• Gobble up enough choice wins down the stretch to remove all doubt about their at-large credentials.
Utah beat Arizona once, in early December. A season sweep would bolster its resume. Toppling UCLA would also do wonders.
The Utes also need to win more than they lose against other bubble teams in the conference (Colorado, USC and ASU).
Above all, they must avoid faltering against the Pac-12’s bloated bottom rung. Bad losses offset quality wins.
It’s a treacherous path, for sure. We give the Utes only a modest chance to make the field of 68.
But given the state of the program last March and the broader backdrop of Smith’s salvage operation, it’s a good problem for the Utes to have.
To the power ratings …
(NET rankings through Monday)
1. UCLA (17-3, 8-1)
Last week: 1
Results: won at ASU 74-62, lost at Arizona 58-52
Next up: at USC (Thursday)
NET ranking: 5
Comment: Do good wins matter more to the selection committee than bad losses? We’re less than two months from finding out. The Bruins have just a few of the former but none of the latter.
2. Arizona (17-3, 6-3)
Last week: 3
Results: beat USC 81-66 and UCLA 58-52
Next up: at Washington State (Thursday)
NET ranking: 11
Comment: Had the Wildcats beaten WSU a few weeks ago, this would be a prime letdown situation coming off the L.A. sweep. But they should be locked in after the double-digit loss to the Cougars.
3. USC (14-6, 6-3)
Last week: 4
Results: lost at Arizona 81-66, won at ASU 77-69
Next up: vs. UCLA (Thursday)
NET ranking: 62
Comment: One game continues to impact the complexion of USC’s season. Win the opener against Florida Gulf Coast, and everything looks different.
4. Utah (14-7, 7-3)
Last week: 5
Results: beat WSU 77-63 and Washington 86-61
Next up: at Oregon State (Thursday)
NET ranking: 48
Comment: Also worth watching down the stretch: Utah’s seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. The goal should be to avoid No. 4, thus delaying a date with UCLA, the presumptive No. 1, until the championship game.
5. Arizona State (15-5, 6-3)
Last week: 2
Results: lost to UCLA 74-62 and USC 77-69
Next up: at Washington (Thursday)
NET ranking: 55
Comment: The next month is about avoiding bad losses. The final fortnight (Arizona and the L.A. schools) is about collecting good wins.
6. Colorado (12-9, 4-6)
Last week: 6
Results: lost to Washington 75-72, beat WSU 58-55
Next up: at Oregon (Thursday)
NET ranking: 65
Comment: The Buffaloes are 6-0 when Tristan da Silva scores 20 points or more and 2-5 when he scores 10 points or less. Feels a tad significant.
7. Oregon (11-9, 5-4)
Last week: 7
Results: won at Cal 87-58, lost at Stanford 71-64
Next up: vs. Colorado (Thursday)
NET ranking: 60
Comment: The next six games are against NCAA locks or teams on the bubble. The Ducks had best win four. Otherwise, the at-large door will slam shut.
8. Washington (12-9, 4-6)
Last week: 9
Results: won at Colorado 75-72, lost at Utah 86-61
Next up: vs. ASU (Thursday)
NET ranking: 118
Comment: Switch Keion Brooks to point guard, give him a few more assists per game, take away a couple of rebounds and lower his 3-point percentage, and he’s pretty much Terrell Brown.
9. Washington State (9-12, 4-6)Last week: 8
Results: lost at Utah 77-63 and Colorado 58-55
Next up: vs. Arizona (Thursday)
NET ranking: 75
Comment: WSU’s position on the NCAA Tournament bubble is comparable to Pluto’s orbit around the sun.
10. Stanford (7-12, 2-7)
Last week: 12
Results: beat OSU 67-46 and Oregon 71-64
Next up: vs. Chicago State (Wednesday)
NET ranking: 125
Comment: “Alive. It’s alive. It’s a-LIVE!” Gene Wilder’s character in “Young Frankenstein” remarked after watching Stanford over the weekend.
11. Oregon State (8-12, 2-7)
Last week: 11
Results: lost at Stanford 67-46, won at Cal 68-48
Next up: vs. Utah (Thursday)
NET ranking: 213
Comment: The Beavers took inconsistency to an art form in losing at Stanford by 19 and winning at Cal by 20.
12. Cal (3-17, 2-7)
Last week: 10
Results: lost to Oregon 87-58 and OSU 68-48
Next up: at Stanford (Saturday)
NET ranking: 290
Comment: We would suggest Cal cannot possibly beat Stanford again, except it keeps happening, somehow.
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