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Remember when ... Utah men’s college basketball teams would go dancing?

Only one men’s program from the Beehive State will be playing in the NCAA Tournament this season, a far cry from the state’s golden years

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Utah’s Britton Johnsen celebrates with his teammates following the Utes’ Final Four victory over North Carolina in the 1998 NCAA Tournament in San Antonio on Saturday, March 29, 1998.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Message from a reader: “Remember when men’s college basketball teams in Utah didn’t (slang word for ‘stink’)?”

Yes. Many of us also remember bell bottoms (the first time they came along) and high-waisted jeans (the first time they came along), and big hair and Bon Jovi and indoor cigarette smoking and TVs with four channels. If we think really hard we can even remember when Utah basketball was A Big Deal.

No, really. It’s difficult to believe, but Utah’s schools from the ’40s through most of the ’80s were the biggest show in the state. Bigger than football. Bigger than Donny and Marie (remember them?). Utah was the North Carolina of the West for a time. There have been some sparks of success here and there since then — the Jimmer Fredette era at BYU and the remarkable, extended run by Utah in the ’90s under the late, great, mercurial Rick Majerus — but now it’s only a shadow of what it once was.

Bell bottoms have come back, but not the Utah college basketball scene.

Look around. Other than Utah State, what’ve you got? The Aggies, 26-8, won a berth in the NCAA Tournament despite losing in the Mountain West Conference championship game. This marks the third time in five years the Aggies are in the tournament.

And that’s about it. A total of 100 teams receive invitations to the two postseason tournaments — NCAA (68), NIT (32). BYU, Utah, Southern Utah and Weber State didn’t get one of them. They are going to the offseason. They can’t crack the top 100.

Utah Valley received an NIT bid and will play at New Mexico Wednesday night.

But the NIT is not the NCAA Tournament and some teams actually turn down its invitations (which is what North Carolina, the preseason No. 1 team, did this year).

BYU, 19-15 overall, lost to South Dakota (or was it North Dakota?) and Utah Valley. The Cougars won only seven of 16 games in West Coast Conference play, which is not exactly a powerhouse league. They lost all three meetings with 19th-ranked Saint Mary’s, including a conference-tournament game. Let’s face it, for a dozen years Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga derailed BYU’s championship hopes in the WCC (Saint Mary’s was 18-10 against BYU, Gonzaga 25-6). BYU has more than 30,000 students and plays in a 19,000-seat arena; Saint Mary’s has less than 4,000 students and a 3,500-seat arena; Gonzaga has 7,400 students and a 7,000-seat arena.

Go figure.

The Cougars are ending their 12-year membership in the WCC without winning a conference title.

Next stop: The Big 12, which has seven current and future member teams in the top 25. This is not going to be pretty. If they thought life in the WCC was difficult …

Utah finished the season with a 17-15 record and placed seventh in the Pac-12. The Utes haven’t seen an NCAA invitation for seven years, and they’ve gone 14 years without a conference title.

Weber State was 18-15 this season. Utah Valley compiled a nice 25-8 season record and defeated BYU and Oregon, but the Wolverines lost to Southern Utah by a point in the conference tournament. Southern Utah, 22-12, turned around and got routed by mighty Grand Canyon in the conference final. That cost them an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah schools all have arenas that would be the envy of almost any school in the country; they’re basketball temples. But sellouts are rare and wins over quality opponents are too. The Utah teams are not bad; they’re just a little better than mediocre. The Big Four compiled a combined record of 80-53, 42-30 in conference play (thanks to a big boost from USU).

Utah schools have been frequent invitees to the NCAA Tournament. Weber State has made 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, Utah State 23, BYU 30, Utah 29. They comprised four good basketball schools within a 100-mile radius and they featured a number of memorable players — Kresimir Cosic, Dick Nemelka, Wayne Estes, Billy McGill, Arnie Ferrin, Danny Vranes, Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge.

The state of Utah has sent at least two teams to the NCAA Tournament in the same year almost two dozen times. Six times the state qualified three teams in the same year. On two occasions, they qualified four teams for the tournament in the same season.

In the ’40s and ’50s Utah won the NCAA Tournament and BYU won two NITs. During Utah’s run under Majerus, only Kentucky could stop the Utes, beating them in the ’05 region semifinals, the ’03 second round, the ’98 national championship, the ’97 regional final, the ’96 regional semifinal and the ’93 second round.

Who knows when or if Utah schools will see days like that again.


BYU guard Jimmer Fredette (32) and teammate BYU guard Charles Abouo goof around on the bench during the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament third-round victory over Gonzaga March 19, 2011, at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News