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Both BYU and Utah State appear to be headed to the NCAA Tournament, and some other takeaways from the latest in college basketball

Despite the Cougars’ loss to Gonzaga Monday night, they are still projected to make it into the NCAA Tournament, as is Mountain West Conference-leading Utah State

In this Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, Utah State’s Justin Bean (34) plays against UNLV in an NCAA college basketball game in Las Vegas. The Aggies are currently projected as a 12-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament
John Locher, AP

The college basketball season is drawing closer and closer to its end.

It won’t end tomorrow or the next day, but in less than a month’s time the West Coast Conference tournament will tip off at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas (the men’s and women’s tournament’s are scheduled take place March 4-9).

Right after that, the Pac-12 and Mountain West Conference tournaments will be held in Las Vegas, too, from March 10-13 at T-Mobile Arena and Thomas & Mack Center, respectively.

Once those tournaments are completed, all that remains for college basketball is the big one, the NCAA Tournament.

Who will make the tournament won’t be officially decided until March 14, but after last week things are looking up for a couple of teams from Utah.

Here are five takeaways from the latest in college basketball:

BYU’s loss to Gonzaga stings, but should it?

Brigham Young Cougars guard Brandon Averette (4) shoots as Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi (11) watches during a basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. BYU lost 71-82.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Late Monday night, BYU faced off against No. 1-ranked Gonzaga for the second time this season and the game went the same way as the first meeting: The Bulldogs won, the Cougars lost and there is no debate as to which team is preeminent in the WCC.

As BYU guard Alex Barcello said afterward, “They’re (Gonzaga) really good in the gaps. They’re very athletic and quick … They’re good at reading the ball handler. They’re athletic and they use that to their advantage.”

Prior to the game, and this isn’t likely to change after a loss to the best team in America, BYU was sitting pretty when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

In ESPN’s updated bracketology with Joe Lunardi, the Cougars are an 8-seed. Their NET ranking was 27 and they may not fall at all, considering the last time they lost to the Bulldogs they actually rose in the rankings.

Barring a late-season collapse against the likes of Pacific, Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, San Diego and Saint Mary’s and whoever else BYU might play to close out the regular season, the Cougars should be in the NCAA Tournament.

A poor showing in the WCC tournament could make them a “Last Four In” team, but right now BYU is on track to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2014-15.

Utah State is the No. 1 team in the Mountain West

UNLV’s Devin Tillis, left, and Utah State’s Justin Bean battle for a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas.
John Locher, AP

You read that right. The Aggies are currently the No. 1 team in the Mountain West, with an 11-2 record, just ahead of Colorado State (11-3), Boise State (10-3) and scalding hot San Diego State (8-3).

As such, Utah State is currently projected to claim the conference’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament and is slated as a 12-seed.

And that is before taking into consideration the fact that under head coach Craig Smith, the Aggies have won back-to-back conference tournament championships. So even if USU drops out of the top spot some time in the next month — the Aggies have series against Boise State and Nevada upcoming and the Wolf Pack have won four games in a row — they have as good a chance as any team to win the conference tourney and make the Big Dance that way.

This past week was a light one for the Aggies, though. They played Fresno State once, on Thursday, and handled their business, defeating the Bulldogs 69-53.

After the win, Smith was effusive with his praise and rightly so given the way his team has played much of the season.

“Good road win for the Aggies,” Smith said. “These guys (Fresno State) were 7-1 at home, have been outscoring people by 15 a game at home. It wasn’t a painting by Van Gogh, it looked more like me drawing stick men... I’m proud of how we played in the second half. We really established (Neemias) Queta inside, and that makes the game easier for everybody. I thought we defended very hard, and executed our game plan. We made it a lot more difficult for them in the second half. We had 17 assists on 26 made baskets, that’s an outstanding number. Our bench was outstanding tonight, we scored 32 points off the bench. Our bench was big for us tonight.”

Utah State was scheduled to host Wyoming this week, but that series was postponed Tuesday morning, after which come the aforementioned showdowns with Boise State and Nevada, but right now there is no better team in the MW.

Utah is starting to turn its season around

Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) moves with the ball against Arizona Wildcats forward Jordan Brown (21) during a men’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

While an NCAA Tournament berth is an extreme long shot for the Runnin’ Utes — Utah would have to win the Pac-12 Conference tournament — things have been trending upward up on the hill recently.

With the win over Arizona last Thursday, Utah has now won back-to-back conference games for the first time this season and has finally showed definitive flashes of the type of team it could be.

After the win over the Wildcats, head coach Larry Krystkowiak said as much.

“That proved we can compete with anybody,” he said.

The most encouraging aspect of the latest victory wasn’t just that Utah won, though. Rather it was how. Utah controlled the game against Arizona from start to finish, and when the Wildcats made a run in the second half, the Utes responded in kind in the 73-58 victory.

With potentially eight games remaining in the regular season, Utah could, key word being could, go on enough of a run to actually give themselves a chance in the conference tournament. Seeding matters and the Utes have a chance to improve upon that seeding, even as they are slated to face off against Stanford, Oregon, USC and UCLA in the coming weeks.

And who knows, crazier things have happened in March than a mid-tier team getting hot and winning a conference tourney.

Weber State is on the rise, with Southern Utah right with them

Weber State’s Zahir Porter, right, tries to move past Montana State’s Xavier Bishop on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.
Robert Casey, Weber State Athletics

Don’t look now, but the Weber State Wildcats have won four consecutive games and eight of their last nine. This past week, Weber State took care of Montana State in back-to-back games.

The Wildcats are now No. 2 in the Big Sky Conference, with a 6-2 record, and only half a game behind Eastern Washington. Weber State has been dominant at home, too, undefeated in fact with eight wins.

Weber State’s NET ranking is 107, which is far and away the best of any Big Sky team. Eastern Washington is second at 152, followed by Montana State (180) and SUU (182).

At their current pace, the Wildcats may just be the favorite to win the Big Sky tournament in Boise (it runs March 10-13) and claim the conference’s NCAA Tournament bid.

Right behind them, though, next to them even, are the Thunderbirds. The T-Birds and Wildcats split their season series earlier this year and the T-Birds have won two consecutive games, even while dealing with a rash of COVID-19-induced cancellations.

Also 6-2 in conference, Southern Utah has established itself as one of the top four teams in the Big Sky this season, a group made up by Eastern Washington, Weber State, SUU and Montana State.

There is still time for things to change — Weber State has eight games remaining, while SUU has seven — but right now the Wildcats and T-Birds both have a legitimate shot of dancing in March.

UVU and Dixie State’s in-state showdown to make or break a season

Utah Valley’s Le’Tre Darthard shoots at the basket as Tarleton State’s Shamir Bogues defends on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at the UCCU Center on Orem.
Jay Drowns, UVU Marketing

Neither Utah Valley nor Dixie State are expected to get into the NCAA Tournament — the Wolverines have a chance with a 4-1 record in the Western Athletic Conference — but this week is an important one for both teams.

UVU sat out last week with its series against Chicago State canceled, while Dixie State split its series against Seattle, but the Utah schools face off against each other this week, with two games in Orem this weekend.

For UVU, a series sweep would keep the Wolverines in position near the top of the WAC — UVU is No. 3 currently, behind the Grand Canyon Antelopes and UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros.

Dixie State, meanwhile, would jump right into the middle of the conference race with back-to-back wins over UVU.

A split series would mean both programs are what they have been — i.e. not bad, not great, but somewhere in between.