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Runnin’ Utes too often can’t nail the ending this season. Will that change vs. ASU, or at the Pac-12 Tournament?

Utah and Arizona State are jockeying for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the conference tournament, but the Sun Devils can clinch the seventh seed if they can beat Colorado on Thursday night

SHARE Runnin’ Utes too often can’t nail the ending this season. Will that change vs. ASU, or at the Pac-12 Tournament?
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Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) sails under the backboard after dunking the ball during a Pac-12 basketball game against Oregon State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Oregon State won, 75-70. The Utes return to the court Saturday to face Arizona State for the first time this season.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Thursday’s 75-70 loss in the almost-empty Huntsman Center to Oregon State, another maddening setback in a season full of them, showed the Utah Utes have more to worry about right now than just seeding for the Pac-12 Tournament.

The Utes (10-12, 7-11 Pac-12) turned the ball over twice in the final 31 seconds, as team leaders Pelle Larsson and Timmy Allen made bad passes under a bit of duress, and Utah lost another close game for what seems like the hundredth time in this disjointed 2020-21 season.

But as the regular-season finale approaches Saturday at noon MST — the first matchup with Arizona State this year for the Utes — it is probably a good time to glance at the standings and figure out where Utah sits in regard to the tilts next week at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“We are not capturing the start of the game the way we are capable of, and the way we should, and the way we know we can. So we gotta get our mindset ready to go to get off to a better start on Saturday.” — Utah assistant head coach Tommy Connor.

Bottom line is that Utah will get either a seven seed or an eight seed. Arizona, which is in fifth place, is ineligible for postseason play this year, so every team behind the Wildcats moves up a spot. The won-loss percentage record in conference games determine seedings this year because teams haven’t played the same number of games, due to pandemic-related cancellations.

Here are the “ifs” for the Utes: If ASU (10-11, 7-8) wins at Colorado on Thursday night, it will get the No. 7 seed and Saturday’s game at Utah, to be televised by Fox Sports 1, will not matter.

However, if ASU loses at Colorado — the Buffaloes are double-digit favorites — and Utah knocks off the Sun Devils on Saturday, Utah gets the seventh seed and ASU the eighth.

Clear as mud, right?

Still, seeding is important because the winner of the 8-9 game next Wednesday has to play the No. 1 seed the following day, while the winner of the 7-10 game gets the No. 2 seed.

Then again, there’s not much difference among the top four squads in the Pac-12 this year — Oregon, USC, UCLA and Colorado — so matchups probably matter more than seeds, at least as far as the Utes are concerned.

For instance, Utah was swept by UCLA and Oregon (both Utah-OU games were razor-close) but split with USC and Colorado, trading road wins with the Buffs and knocking the Trojans off 71-61 in Salt Lake City last week after getting routed in Los Angeles on Jan. 2, 64-46. 

Which brings us to our next point regarding these enigmatic Utes. Eight of coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team’s 11 losses have been by a grand total of 43 points, for an average of 5.3 points per close loss.

The other three losses, by 18 to USC, 18 to Oregon State and 15 to UCLA, move Utah’s average per conference loss to 8.5 points.

Krystkowiak rightfully scurried off to watch his son’s Olympus High team defeat Brighton 77-68 immediately after Utah’s loss Wednesday, so assistant head coach Tommy Connor handled the postgame interview with reporters and offered a fresh look at the Utes’ close-game struggles.

“Well, I think a lot of it is the other team,” Connor said. “I mean, Oregon State played well today. Like I said, they are playing well. They are a good team. I don’t think we struggled today. I thought we were right there. The game was back and forth, the whole game.

“They hit a couple shots at the end and we don’t get some shots on the rim at the end. It was really a toss-up,” he said.

More looking ahead: If Utah gets the No. 7 seed, it will play Washington at 5 p.m. MST Wednesday in Vegas. If the Utes get the No. 8 seed, they will play Washington State at 2 p.m. that day.

Washington (4-16) and Washington State (7-12) have concluded conference play.

As for ASU, which plays CU Thursday night on ESPN2, the Sun Devils were impacted by COVID-19 issues as much as any team in the West in January, but have settled in this month and been playing well.

Utah will have its hands full, Connor said.

“We are not capturing the start of the game the way we are capable of, and the way we should, and the way we know we can,” he said, further explaining some of Utah’s issues. “So we gotta get our mindset ready to go to get off to a better start on Saturday.”

Because right now, close finishes aren’t the Utes’ specialty.