Utah and Colorado have followed largely similar paths so far this year.

Both programs found success in nonconference play and early in Pac-12 action, building up solid NCAA Tournament résumés.

In the back half of conference play, though, both men’s basketball teams have gone through losing stretches in the past couple weeks before pulling out thrilling wins on the road last weekend — Utah at UCLA and Colorado at USC.

“I just want our message to be, be where your feet are at. Right? All we can do is do what we can do. Let’s be where our feet are at today, practice to get better in preparation to play this excellent Colorado team.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

That sets the stage for their rematch when the Runnin’ Utes visit the Buffaloes on Saturday (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network).

In the latest NCAA Tournament bracketology projections, Utah and Colorado are largely seen to be on the wrong side of the ledger after those tough stretches and are squarely on the NCAA bubble.

With five games left in the regular season, though, there’s still time to turn things around and build momentum as the postseason approaches.

“They’re a good team. It’s amazing how similar a lot of things have been through the course of the season in terms of when we’ve won, they’ve won and vice versa,” Utah coach Craig Smith said.

Utah beat Colorado when the two teams met in Salt Lake City three weeks ago, edging the Buffaloes 73-68 behind a strong defensive effort; the Utes held the Buffaloes to just 37.9% from the field.

Deivon Smith nearly had a triple-double that night — scoring 17 points to go with 11 rebounds and nine assists — while Gabe Madsen added 21 points for Utah.

That helped counter a 25-point effort from Colorado senior guard KJ Simpson, including 12 points in the final two minutes to spur a late rally that came up short.

For Utah to get a sweep, though, won’t be easy — Colorado is 13-1 at home this season, its lone loss at CU Events Center coming against No. 4 Arizona.

“They’ve been unbelievable at home,” Craig Smith said. “They have a great home court in Boulder and they play with a lot of energy, specifically at home, but ton of talent on that team. (Colorado coach) Tad Boyle does a great job.”

Last time they played, both teams were missing a couple of players due to injury, and Smith said he doesn’t anticipate guard Rollie Worster (lower leg injury), who last played on Jan. 11, playing this weekend.

This time, Utah is expected to face true freshman forward Cody Williams, who missed their last matchup. The projected high draft pick is averaging 14.2 points per game while shooting a team-high 59.2% from the field.

“He can get it going in any number of ways. At his size and his length, when he gets around the rim, he’s able to finish at all kinds of angles, over shot blockers,” Smith said.

“... And he’s a good defender because he’s so long. You can get deep and you might have a half a step advantage, but with his length, he can catch up and make those plays. So he’s a dynamic player and he certainly makes them different.”

It will be a Quad 1 chance for the Utes, with Colorado currently No. 41 in the NET rankings.

Utah, which is No. 46 in the NET, is 8-8 overall against Quad 1 and 2 competition, including a 4-6 Quad 1 record. 

The Utes have benefitted from a surging Washington State team that beat Arizona on Thursday night to take over the Pac-12 lead. The Cougars are now No. 28 in the NET, qualifying both of Utah’s games against them as Quad 1 contests.

There are a couple Quad 3 losses on the Utes’ résumé, now, though — both losses to Arizona State count in the Quad 3 category, after the Sun Devils dropped to No. 136 in the NET.

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That increases the importance of this weekend’s game, as it will be the second-to-last Quad 1 opportunity for Utah before the postseason, along with the regular-season finale at Oregon.

How will Utah respond from beating UCLA?

It was a confidence-building win, as the Utes earned their first conference road victory of the season and battled through a tough stretch to snap a three-game losing streak.

For a team that had lost five of six and had opportunities to win on the last possession in two of the three most recent losses, Utah was boosted by Branden Carlson’s putback with 0.2 seconds remaining that lifted the Runnin’ Utes to a 70-69 victory.

Smith noted his team had a great practice earlier this week during this rare one-game week — there’s only two of those during league play — and he’s not worried about an emotional letdown after the win over UCLA.

“I don’t anticipate that being any issue in any way. I’m just so happy for guys that we’re able to find a way to win that game,” he said. “So it’s a great win for us and hopefully we can build off of that on Saturday.”

Following the game at Colorado, Utah will play its final two home games of the regular season — against Stanford next Thursday, followed by its lone matchup this season against California two days later.

The Utes will then finish the regular season on the road at Oregon State (March 7) and Oregon (March 9) before heading to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Utah (16-10, 7-8 Pac-12)
at Colorado (17-9, 8-7 Pac-12)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
CU Events Center, Boulder, Colorado
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: 700 AM

One moment at a time, though.

“I know there’s a bunch of teams right in the middle where we’re at where you get a two-game sweep, things can change. However, none of that matters,” Smith said.

“I just want our message to be, be where your feet are at. Right? All we can do is do what we can do. Let’s be where our feet are at today, practice to get better in preparation to play this excellent Colorado team.”

Utah’s coach said a few areas for focus against Colorado will be transition defense, rebounding and limiting turnovers.

“I think it all starts with our transition defense. We can’t let them get loose in transition and start getting dunks and layups and easy 3s and living at the foul line. Secondly, you know what you’re gonna get with Colorado, they’re an elite rebounding team. It’s hard to get offensive boards against them and they’re gonna crash three guys every time,” Smith said.

“... For us on the offensive end, we’ve got to value the ball. We finally had a single-digit turnover game against UCLA, we only turned it over nine times. We didn’t have nearly as many unforced turnovers against UCLA and I thought that was a big reason we won that game and we have to have that kind of effort as well in Colorado.”

Colorado guard Luke O’Brien listens to coach Tad Boyle during game against Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Seattle. Says Utah coach Craig Smith of the Buffaloes, “They’ve been unbelievable at home. They have a great home court in Boulder and they play with a lot of energy, specifically at home.” | Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press