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College basketball: Sizing up Beehive State conference races with a (bit more than) month to play

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BYU Cougars guard Brandon Averette (4) finishes a layup against Pepperdine at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

A bunch of college basketball conferences end their regular seasons in the final few days of February (the others end the next week), which means there’s just a bit over a month remaining for a lot of teams to jockey their way into seeding position for their conference tournaments and, for some, an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

With that in mind, here’s how the seven Division I teams in Utah are faring after a week that saw a mixture of some highs and some lows around the state.

BYU, West Coast Conference

The Cougars now boast the longest winning streak in the state at four games after Utah State lost to Colorado State last week. In its return to Provo after a month of not playing there, BYU last week came away with two victories, a 28-point demolition of Portland and a narrow win over Pepperdine.

It’s tougher this year than ever to gauge how teams stack up against others in their conference because the pandemic has prevented them from playing an equal number of games, but the Cougars are the only squad in the West Coast Conference with just one conference loss beside juggernaut Gonzaga.

What’s more, BYU keeps moving up the seed line in the bracketology of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and now sit at No. 36, which would make the Cougars a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament (BYU was No. 44 in the first seed line Lunardi released last week). Can Mark Pope’s club keep proving it is the second-best team in the WCC?

Utah State, Mountain West Conference

The Aggies got their win streak up to 11 games before finally faltering last Thursday against Colorado State. It’s tough to keep long win streaks alive, but now comes the question of how Utah State will respond to the loss.

The Aggies are alone in second in the Mountain West Conference, behind a Boise State team that has won 13 games in a row after losing its season opener and ahead of Colorado State. In Lunardi’s latest bracketology, however, Utah State is among the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament field.

That gives the indication that, short of winning the MWC tournament and getting an automatic bid, the Aggies are going to have to be really, really good the rest of the regular season to be in the conversation for an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Can the Aggies once again get a good streak going?

Utah, Pac-12 Conference


Look, things weren’t good for the Utes before last week, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe they would start to turn things around after they beat Washington State on the road last Thursday. That was all erased when they lost to a bad Washington team on Sunday. With a 3-6 record in conference play, it’s more than fair at this point to say Utah isn’t good, if it wasn’t already fair before last week.

Can we talk for a minute about the Pac-12 in general, too? In a season of mediocrity, its two ranked teams from last week, Oregon (21) and UCLA (24), both lost a game, as did the two teams that received votes, Colorado and USC. UCLA is still ranked this week (the Bruins somehow moved up a spot to No. 23), but the other three are just receiving votes, as is Arizona. Not great.

But at least commissioner Larry Scott leaving is good news! Yep, that’s where we are with the Pac-12.

SUU, Big Sky Conference

After a really strong start to the season, the T-Birds lost by 24 on the road to in-state and Big Sky rival Weber State last Thursday. The two teams met again Saturday in Cedar City and SUU got on the right side of things with a 77-72 win, but are Todd Simon and company at a bit of a crossroads at this point?

On one hand, the T-Birds are kind of playing with house money, as they weren’t expected to do a whole lot this season but find themselves second in the Big Sky standings. On the other hand, can SUU keep things going and stay in the hunt for the next few weeks?

Of course, the Big Sky will be a one-bid league in the NCAA Tournament, but the T-Birds need to position themselves as well as possible for a high seed in the conference tournament so they can try to make a real run at it.

Weber State, Big Sky Conference

To some degree, the Wildcats were just kind of floating along up until last week. They had beaten teams they were supposed to and lost to teams they were supposed to with a whopping six games canceled because of COVID-19.

Then Weber went and convincingly beat SUU, which served as a reminder that the Wildcats were picked to finish third in the Big Sky in the preseason. After the T-Birds got Weber back on Saturday, the question for Randy Rahe and company is how much they can move up before the conference tournament to try to be in position to make things interesting.

UVU, Western Athletic Conference

In another representation of just how weird this season is, the Wolverines were scheduled to have a two-week break in games before facing Tarleton State this weekend, but they went and played St. John’s of the Big East in New York last Saturday. So random.

Yeah, UVU lost by 18, but Mark Madsen’s team was within seven early in the second half. More importantly in the big picture of the season, however, the Wolverines are 3-0 in WAC play (another 2021 bit: five teams in the conference haven’t lost in WAC play, but the only ones in that group that have played the same number of games are two that are 0-0).

Can the Wolverines keep it going? Big man Fardaws Aimaq continues to lead the entire country in rebounds by a huge margin at 14.9 per game, which is fun. Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagne is second at 12.4. That difference of 2.5 is the same difference as Champagne and 21st in the country.

Dixie State, Western Athletic Conference

This season was always going to be a challenge for Dixie State, its first campaign in Division I. That is proving to be the case as the Trailblazers are 0-4 in WAC play, although two of the games have been close, including a 3-point loss to a good Grand Canyon team last week. (Grand Canyon won the second contest of the series by 35.)

Can Dixie at least keep making strides this season as it dives into the Division I endeavor and maybe even win a couple of WAC games? That would surely be considered a successful season.