Why not us? Runnin’ Utes enter Pac-12 tournament on a losing skid, but hopes remain high
First-year Utah coach Craig Smith has been successful in conference tournaments before, making it to the finals four straight years
LAS VEGAS — The Runnin’ Utes don’t have a lot of positives going for them right now that suggest they can make a lengthy run in the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament.
They enter the tournament, which begins Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and runs through Saturday, with the No. 11 seed and on a three-game losing streak. All that momentum they gained in mid-February with a road sweep of the Bay Area schools has been vaporized by losses at home to Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.
But there is one factor that could work in Utah’s favor when it opens the tournament Wednesday night (9:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) against No. 6 seed Washington (16-14), which has won two straight and three of its last four.
“There is always a way to get it done. I wish we were playing better. I wish we would have played a little bit better and had a little more mojo going into it. But it is time to re-set and have a good couple days of practice as we head into Washington.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
That would be head coach Craig Smith, who has had a history of success in conference tournaments at his previous two schools: Utah State and South Dakota. The Aggies were 8-1 in the Mountain West tournament across the Las Vegas Strip at the Thomas & Mack Center during his three seasons there, going 3-0 in both 2019 and 2020 to win the championships, and 2-1 last year when San Diego State handled them in the final.
He was 4-4 in the Summit League tournament in four years at South Dakota, making it to the semifinals in 2015 and 2017 and the championship game in 2018.
Some coaches have a knack for getting their teams ready to play well in conference tournaments, and some don’t. Smith seems to be among the former.
What’s the secret?
“We had good teams, we had great momentum, we were playing our best basketball of the year,” Smith said. “The last four years when we made the championship games we maybe lost one game the last month (before that).”
The Utes (11-19) are definitely not playing their best basketball of the season, but things can change quickly, Smith noted, referencing runs to the title made by Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament and Georgetown in the Big East tournament last year.
“I would have said the same for us here as of 10 days ago,” he said. “I thought we were playing well. We haven’t played nearly as sharp or as well since that road sweep, for whatever reason.”
Momentum matters. But so does confidence and belief, and in that regard Smith says the Utes haven’t given up hope, despite the demoralizing 84-71 loss to rival Colorado on Senior Night last Saturday.
“There is always a way to get it done. I wish we were playing better. I wish we would have played a little bit better and had a little more mojo going into it,” Smith said. “But it is time to re-set and have a good couple days of practice as we head into Washington.”
Point guard Rollie Worster was on that 2020-21 USU team that made it to the MW finals last year. He’s seen Smith work his magic, and believes it can be done again.
“I know our team, and myself, and our coaches, all believe 100% that we can go in, make some noise, hopefully go on a run, and get some momentum back, and just see what happens,” Worster said.
Look no further than last year, when Utah was a No. 7 seed and knocked off Washington 98-95 in the first round before falling in double overtime to No. 2 seed USC, that same USC team that made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before losing to national title favorite Gonzaga. Back from that Utah team are Branden Carlson, Riley Battin, Jaxon Brenchley and Eli Ballstaedt.
Washington’s Terrell Brown Jr., the leading scorer in the league with a 21.7 average and a big matchup problem for the Utes on Wednesday night, made the first team.
Smith says a coaching friend asked him the other day for some advice on winning the Mountain West tournament.
“I said, ‘Win the first game,’” Smith said. “He kinda laughed, but it is the truth.”
The winner of the Utah-Washington game will meet third-seeded USC in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. MST.
“We are not thinking about USC or UCLA or any of those teams,” Smith said. “We are just completely locked into this.”
USC, top-seeded Arizona, No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 4 seed Colorado drew first-round byes. Arizona, UCLA and USC are considered locks for the NCAA Tournament. The only other way the league can get a fourth team into the Big Dance is if a team other than one of the top three seeds wins it all this week, like OSU did last year.
The Utes, who haven’t been to the conference tournament semifinals since 2016, flew into Las Vegas Monday afternoon and were scheduled to practice at an undisclosed local gym on Tuesday morning. Tuesday night, they will get to practice on the T-Mobile floor for 30 minutes, which is typical for a conference tournament venue.
“It will be nice to shoot in that gym, get used to it and get used to the environment, for sure,” Worster said.
Utes, Huskies on the air
No. 11 seed Utah (11-19)
vs. No. 6 seed Washington (16-14)
Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. MST
Pac-12 Tournament First-Round Game
At T- Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN AM 700