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Utah took a step forward, then two steps back (plus other college basketball takeaways)

SHARE Utah took a step forward, then two steps back (plus other college basketball takeaways)
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Utah center Branden Carlson shoots past California guard Jalen Celestine during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. 

Jed Jacobsohn, Associated Press

The 2020-21 college basketball season has been interesting to say the least, in no small part due to the global pandemic.

No one can predict from one week to the next when or where COVID-19 will strike next. Every single team in the country has felt the virus’ effect in one way or another and last week that included BYU and Utah State.

Both the Cougars and Aggies appear headed for the NCAA Tournament and both had unwelcome weeks off thanks to the virus. Southern Utah, meanwhile, didn’t play any conference games, though the T-Birds were able to find a nonconference opponent.

As for the in-state teams who played, well things didn’t go especially well for Utah and the same could be said for Weber State, UVU and Dixie State.

Here are four takeaways from Week 12 in men’s college basketball:

Utah took one step forward and two steps back

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Utah forward Timmy Allen (1) scores against Stanford forward Jaiden Delaire during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Stanford, Calif. 

Scot Tucker, Associated Press

Before its game against Cal, Utah was trending upward. No, the Runnin’ Utes weren’t NCAA Tournament contenders — barring a few miracles in the Pac-12 Tournament — but after recording back-to-back wins, they finally had positive momentum.

That momentum was almost inexcusably lost against Cal — at 8-15 overall and 3-13 in the Pac-12, the Golden Bears are conference bottom-dwellers — but the Utes managed to hold on just barely for another win. That victory was Utah’s third straight, and it gave the team their longest winning streak this season.

Afterward, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak conceded that the victory left a lot to be desired, but he believed his team could build off it nonetheless.

“It is not the same kind of vibe you want, but you can have learning lessons in life (when endings aren’t) disastrous,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we can make a positive out of it.”

The next time out, though, Utah could not build on their recent successes and were soundly defeated by Stanford.

Yes, Utah was missing multiple starters, namely Rylan Jones and Mikael Jantunen, but the Utes were bad enough, particularly during a seven-minute scoreless stretch at the end of the first half, that neither Jones’ nor Jantunen’s presence was likely to make a difference.

And as a result, Utah finds itself no better than seventh in the Pac-12 standings, with only five games remaining. A bye during the first round of the conference tournament is still possible for the Utes, but much less likely with upcoming games against Oregon, USC and UCLA, among others.

BYU and USU stayed home, to neither’s benefit

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BYU had a week off, thanks to COVID-19 related game cancellations.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Through no fault of either team, both BYU and Utah State did not play this past week.

The Cougars last played on Feb. 8, when they lost at home to No. 1 Gonzaga, while the Aggies last suited up on Feb. 4, when they handled Fresno State.

Utah State was slated to face off against Wyoming, but that series was postponed due to “due to health and safety concerns,” despite reports that neither team had had any players test positive for COVID-19.

The loss of two games did the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament hopes little good, though there are still multiple avenues for USU to gain entry into the Big Dance.

As for the Cougars, they reportedly did all they could to find another opponent to no avail. It is just that kind of season it seems.

“It’s one of those years where it’s like, all right, we have these three on the schedule, let’s just hope we can play those three,” BYU assistant coach Chris Burgess told BYU Sports Nation. “Hopefully, those don’t get postponed or canceled... It’s a really unique situation. Everybody in the country has dealt with cancellations and postponements.”

The time off didn’t do either BYU or Utah State favors in their respective conference races, though. Pepperdine moved into a tie with the Cougars at No. 2 in the West Coast Conference. Utah State, meanwhile, still sits atop the Mountain West, now tied with Boise State — who’s played two more league games — and just ahead of Colorado State and San Diego State.

Weber State fell behind in race for top spot in Big Sky, while SUU leapt ahead

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Isaiah Brown and Weber State split a pair of games at Montana last week.

Weber State Athletics

Speaking of conference races, the battle at the top of the Big Sky took a turn over the weekend, to the detriment of Weber State and the benefit of Southern Utah.

Before their series against Montana, the Wildcats were in excellent position in the conference race, sitting in a tie at No. 2 overall, with only Eastern Washington ahead of them. After splitting the series with the Grizzlies, though — Weber State lost the first game 80-67, then bounced back for a 91-82 win — Weber State fell into a third-place tie with Idaho State, a game and a half off the pace set by the Eagles.

Southern Utah, meanwhile, played only one game last week, a nonconference bout with San Diego Christian College (Calif.). The Thunderbirds took care of business, winning 109-50, and improved to 11-0 at home this season. The game had no effect on the Big Sky race, but by not playing a conference opponent, the T-Birds actually moved into second place in the conference, also a game and a half behind Eastern Washington, but with one fewer Big Sky loss than Weber State and Idaho State.

Both the Wildcats and T-Birds have six games remaining before the Big Sky Tournament — barring more cancellations — and the battle for seeding is as important as ever, with the conference’s lone NCAA Tournament berth going to the tournament champion.

And right now, Southern Utah is in the better position, because the longer a team can avoid the red hot Eagles — EWU has won seven straight games and is 9-2 in conference — the better.

UVU and Dixie State renewed the Old Hammer Rivalry

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UVU’s Evan Cole (2) puts up a shot in the paint over Dixie State’s Jacob Nicolds (24) and Trevon Allfrey (40) during their game at the UCCU Center in Orem on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing

The Wolverines and Trailblazers played a pair of games against each other last week, renewing an in-state rivalry that goes back to the junior college ranks and the formation of the Scenic West Athletic Conference.

Fittingly, the team’s split the series, with UVU winning the first 87-72, and Dixie State coming back to take the second 93-89.

“Wow, we were a whole different team tonight,” Dixie State coach Jon Judkins said after the second game. “I thought we played a lot harder and we played more together, to me we felt like a team. I saw tonight what we can do, and if we can do what we did tonight, we have a good chance of winning a lot of games. We talked about it (in the locker room) and wondered if we were more happy that we won tonight or more upset with the way we played last night. They all said they were probably more upset with how we played last night.” 

By splitting the series, the Wolverines missed an excellent opportunity to keep pace atop the WAC, and are now No. 3 in the conference standings and 1.5 games behind Grand Canyon.

Dixie State, meanwhile, did what it has done much of the season — treaded water — as the seventh-best out of nine teams.

The series meant more than just the wins and losses, though, as UVU athletic director Jared Sumsion told KSL’s Sean Walker.

“One of the things we want to do is always remember our history, and what got us here. That goes for both schools. We’re in this together, and we’re going to be battling each other every year,” Sumsion said. “So let’s rekindle that old rivalry as well as start something new and fresh. Both of these programs going from junior college to Division I to where we are now is really amazing.”