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Could the Utah Utes reach Final Four again someday? It's not as wild as you think

SALT LAKE CITY — I like to pretend I remember every detail about Utah’s run to the NCAA championship game, 20 years ago this month … but no.

I remember the atmosphere more than the games.

That’s supposed to happen, right? March Madness is all about the feeling. Considering the Utes’ quick exit from the Pac-12 Tournament, the Final Four seems some time ago. But is it actually unreachable in this era?

Not really.

Not even for a team that just lost on its first night of the conference tournament.

It’s not going to happen tomorrow for Utah, but Gonzaga reached the championship game last year. GU is a small school, in a cold-weather climate, with modest TV revenue, far from the population centers of the East, in a lightly regarded conference.

Yet the Zags are headed back for another try, ranked No. 6.

If Gonzaga can get to the Final Four in the modern era, so can Utah.

Never underestimate the power of suggestion.

• • •

Utah had four players in 1998 that went on to the NBA: Hanno Mottola, Mike Doleac, Andre Miller and Britton Johnsen. Miller logged 1,304 games in the glamour league, Doleac 587. So the Utes had talent. Yet having lost Keith Van Horn to the pros the previous summer, no one expected them to be in San Antonio the last week in March. They lost their first game of the conference tournament that year, too.

In the regional semifinal, they narrowly escaped Arkansas. Then came the first surprise, a win over No. 1 seed Arizona. Suddenly the Utes were two wins from a championship. Then they beat No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinal game.

“What just happened?” America was thinking.

UNC had Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and a history of national championships. The Utes had a coach in a sweater, dropping one-liners about Cindy Crawford and Ashley Judd.

But the entertainment didn’t stop there. Rick Majerus told media about a talk he had with his doctor.

“He told me to get plenty of rest and lose some weight,” he said. “Guess which one I'm not doing?''

For many national news outlets, Majerus was the freshest story in the tournament. Yet it wasn’t like Utah was a true basketball gatecrasher. That’s just the way the Eastern media played it. There always has to be a little-guy-out-of-nowhere angle. With North Carolina, Kentucky and Stanford also in the Final Four, it was convenient to cast the Utes, from the mid-major WAC, in that role.

Never mind Utah had been to the Sweet 16 eight times, the Elite Eight four times, the Final Four three times, and won a national championship.

“We don’t look at ourselves as a Cinderella team,” forward Alex Jensen said.

The Utes led Kentucky in the title game by 12 in the second half, and by seven with 10 minutes remaining. There was a stirring in the crowd, not only from Utah fans, but North Carolina fans, who loved the possibility of a Kentucky meltdown.

Hope soon died for the Utes, but not the memories. Utah defeated five top-25 teams that season. Its record was 30-4, including 18 consecutive wins to start. The Utes reached as high as No. 3 in the rankings.

Intoxicating stuff.

So much so, they should try it again.

• • •

This year’s Utah team revealed no indication of greatness. Though recruiting has been good, and the Utes have some gifted players such as Donnie Tillman and Chris Seeley coming along, they’ve flown beneath the national radar since being ranked No. 13 in 2015-16.

But this is college basketball. Get a couple of NBA prospects on the roster and you have a shot. That seems doable, considering the Utes have produced three NBA players in three years. They reached the Sweet 16 with Kyle Kuzma, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl in 2015, when Kuzma was a little-used freshman.

As a program, Utah is positioned better to go far now than it was in 1998. It now recruits power conference players and has a power conference strength of schedule. Utah’s SOS in 1998 was 79th; this year it’s 68th. It’s true the WAC slate was easier than the Pac-12 today, but it’s all relative.

Most significant, though, might be the recent movement in the sport. Arizona, long the dominant team in the conference, has had several top recruits de-commit in the wake of cheating allegations and an FBI investigation. During the regular season, UCLA and Oregon disappointed.

The way the Utes struggled for consistency this year, it’s hard to envision a championship appearance soon. But Butler and Gonzaga got there, with fewer resources and less money. Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Wichita State and Memphis all made the Final Four since Utah, none from large conferences.

The Utes no longer have the enigmatic Majerus on the sideline, but Larry Krystkowiak has exceeded projections since arriving in Salt Lake. Wednesday he was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. With the NCAA (and FBI) closely monitoring programs for illegal activity, getting one or two great players could become easier for others. They might actually get a fair shot at top talent.

Could Utah ever again have a “Cinderella” moment?

All I know is this: Somebody often does.