‘Catch lightning in a bottle’: Runnin’ Utes still believe they can make a run in Pac-12 tournament this week
No. 7 seed Utah went 10-10 in league play and will face No. 10 Stanford Wednesday in Las Vegas
It may not feel like the Runnin’ Utes are in a better place this year heading into the Pac-12 tournament than they were last year, partly because they’ve lost five straight games.
But trust us on this: Utah has a much better chance of doing some damage in the conference tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in 2023 than it did in 2022.
“Crazy things happen in March. That’s just how it is around the country. We have seen it all. So hopefully we catch a spark here and find a little mojo and catch lightning in a bottle and find a way to make some things happen.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
For starters, the Utes won six more conference games, finishing at 10-10 after Saturday’s 69-60 loss at Colorado. Also, the Utes are a No. 7 seed this year, significantly better than that No. 11 seed they got last year.
If Utah (17-14 overall) can hold off No. 10 seed Stanford (13-18) in a first-round matchup Wednesday (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks), the Utes will face No. 2 seed Arizona in one of Thursday’s quarterfinals.
The Wildcats (25-6) have lost two of their last three games, and, as everybody in Salt Lake City knows, were upset 81-66 by the Utes on Dec. 1 in the Huntsman Center. Utah certainly won’t be intimidated by U of A if it comes to that.
Having to face top-seeded UCLA? Now that’s another story. The Bruins (27-4) are going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can hold serve in Vegas.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Stanford, which had its two-game winning streak snapped with a 73-68 loss at No. 4 seed Oregon on Saturday, is an experienced and dangerous team with plenty of talented players, such as sophomore forward Harrison Ingram, senior forward Spencer Jones, grad student guard Michael Jones and junior forward Brandon Angel.
If Utah overachieved this season, after having been picked to finish 10th in the league last October, then Stanford underachieved. Having been picked to finish fifth — and receiving one first-place vote — the Cardinal finished 10th and were 2-8 away from home.
In their season series, the Utes won 71-66 on Dec. 31 in Palo Alto, while the Cardinal won 78-72 in Salt Lake City, a hard-to-explain-away Utes’ loss that kept them from tying for fifth in the league standings and getting the No. 6 seed.
“Stanford beat us about five to six weeks ago,” Utes coach Craig Smith told ESPN 700 radio after the Colorado loss. “At this point, like we told our guys, we know them inside out and backwards. They know us. And now we got to go out and try to find a way to win the Pac-12 championship.”
That’s right — the Utes and their coach still believe they can win four games in four days in Las Vegas, which is the only way they can make it into the NCAA Tournament.
What about the NIT? The Utes were solidly in that field of 32 teams three weeks ago, but the five losses in a row may have put them in jeopardy of missing out on that postseason tournament, too, depending on which NIT bracketology website one follows.
A win or two at T-Mobile could go a long way toward getting Utah back into the NIT picture; Of course, the NIT gives conference regular-season champions who do not win their conference tournaments an automatic bid, so Utes fans should probably be cheering for chalk this week among the mid-major conferences.
Why do the Utes believe they have a chance this week?
The obvious answer is because they are finally back to full strength, as starting guards Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster logged 30 minutes apiece against the Buffs.
Madsen had been out five weeks, while Worster had missed the losses to UCLA and USC at the Huntsman Center. Worster was 5 of 8 for a team-leading 15 points, while Madsen got off to a slow start but hit three-straight 3-pointers in the second half and finished with nine points.
Also, Marco Anthony didn’t practice all week for reasons Smith didn’t specify during his postgame remarks on the radio, but played 25 minutes.
“It was good to get those guys out there and get their legs under them and hopefully get them back to a rhythm,” Smith said. “…That was the silver lining in this — those guys were able to get back on the court together and hopefully get some synergy and a little bit of a rhythm to their game going into Wednesday night against Stanford.”
Runnin’ Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (17-14)
vs. No. 10 Stanford (13-18)
Wednesday, March 8, 7 p.m. MST
At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700
To make a run, the Utes will need a lot more help from their bench than they’ve been getting. Freshmen Wil Exacte and Keba Keita, Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders and senior Bostyn Holt got some valuable minutes the past few weeks, and Saunders and Holt had some moments that showed they can be solid contributors in stretches.
“There are no secrets at this time of year,” Smith said. “Hopefully we can go in there and compete. Our goal is to win the whole thing.
“After losing five in a row, I understand that is a (dream). But in order to do that, you gotta win the first one. I mean, that is the bottom line,” Smith continued. “Crazy things happen in March. That’s just how it is around the country. We have seen it all. So hopefully we catch a spark here and find a little mojo and catch lightning in a bottle and find a way to make some things happen.”