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BYU’s NCAA Tournament picture becoming clearer, Utah State on the brink (plus other college basketball takeaways)

BYU coach Mark Pope claps on the sideline of a game against the Pacific Tigers at the Marriott Center in Provo.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope works the sideline during the game against the Pacific Tigers at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

As we enter the final week of the regular season for a number of college basketball conferences, the picture for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament is starting to sharpen into focus.

Here’s a look at where teams from around Utah stand in their quest for a bid, as well as how the squads in one-bid leagues are doing as their conference tournaments draw closer.

Could BYU end up in the top half of the bracket?

Since a rough loss to the Pepperdine Waves on Jan. 27, the BYU Cougars have bounced back very well, winning four of five games, with the only loss coming to the juggernaut Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Not only have the Cougars been winning, but three of their four victories have come by a combined 90 points, and it appears to be entirely within the realm of possibility that they will get a top eight seed in the NCAA Tournament (they’re all but a lock for an at-large bid at this point).

In his latest bracket released last Friday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had BYU as an 8 seed (facing UCLA in the first round), while CBS’ Jerry Palm had the Cougars as a 9 seed (playing Saint Louis in the first round).

Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch with BYU at this point is if it opts out of the West Coast Conference tournament, as The Oregonian’s John Canzano reported last week could happen.

If Gonzaga also does so, as Canzano reported, that would theoretically open the door for the WCC to get a third bid to the Big Dance (the tournament winner), something that wouldn’t happen if the Bulldogs or Cougars were to win it.

Utah State’s at-large hopes may well be finished

For quite a while now, the Utah State Aggies have been widely seen as squarely on the bubble, as have Mountain West Conference foes Boise State and Colorado State, meaning every game is crucial, especially those against one another.

The Aggies last week had two absolutely massive games on the road against Boise State, and unfortunately for them, they squandered the opportunities to perhaps get a bit of bubble cushioning, as they lost both contests.

Now on Lunardi’s latest seed line, Utah State is in the “Next Four Out,” which means Craig Smith and company would have to jump a whole bunch of teams in order to get an at-large bid. With just two regular-season games left on the schedule against Nevada, it’s looking more and more like the Aggies will have to win the MWC tournament to go dancing.

Southern Utah’s Ivan Madunic (22) goes to the basket as Sacramento State’s David Jones (33) defends during the T-Birds’ 77-57 victory at the America First Event Center in Cedar City, Utah, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
SUU Athletics

Will Weber State and SUU get a chance to win the Big Sky?

This coming Friday looms as a huge day around the country, as that is the deadline for conferences to declare how they will award their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, conference tournaments have long determined that, but with the pandemic, conferences might opt to not hold tournaments and award their automatic bids to their regular-season champions (that has always made the most sense to this writer, but that is a conversation for another day).

This decision could have a huge bearing on the SUU T-Birds and Weber State Wildcats of the Big Sky Conference. They are in a virtual tie for second in the conference behind Eastern Washington as of Sunday night, and would seemingly have a real shot at winning the conference tournament and going dancing.

Will they get that shot, though? There is still two weeks left in the regular season for the Big Sky, so there’s still a decent amount of time for jockeying in the standings, regardless of what is decided this week about the conference tournament.

It’s the same story in the WAC for UVU, and to a lesser degree Dixie State

Like the Big Sky, the WAC is a one-bid league, and so the decision of how the conference will award its automatic berth looms large. It’s really weird in the WAC, however, as teams have played an even more wildly different number of games than in a lot of other conferences.

This is especially a big deal for the UVU Wolverines, as they are third in the conference standings, although the team in first place, UT Rio Grande Valley, has played just two conference contests. Second-place Grand Canyon has played eight (7-1) and UVU has played nine (6-3).

There hasn’t been any word from the WAC about how it might try to deal with the games played discrepancy when it comes to seeding the conference tournament, which for now is scheduled to be played from March 11-13.

Before we leave the WAC, a quick shout to Dixie State. The Trailblazers surely won’t win the WAC, but after starting the season 4-8, they’ve gone 4-3 in their last seven games. Because of game cancellations, they’re not scheduled to play again until closing the regular season with games against New Mexico State on March 5 and 7.

How bad could it get for Utah?

Barring a completely unexpected Pac-12 tournament title and an automatic bid, the Utes won’t come close to the NCAA Tournament. At this point, the biggest question may be how bad things could end in what has been a pretty bad season.

Yes, Utah almost beat Oregon on Saturday, but in Larry Krystkowiak and company’s last three games on the regular-season schedule, the Utes play UCLA and USC, both of which are fighting for NCAA Tournament seeding, as well as Oregon State.

The Utes are in ninth place in the Pac-12 standings. Could it get worse before the regular season ends?