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Kragthorpe: BYU, Utah try to rise above 'best of rest' status in Las Vegas

Published March 6, 2017 2:36 pm

Men's college basketball • The rivals find themselves in remarkably similar postseason situations
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Las Vegas • The West Coast Conference features two outstanding men's basketball teams. BYU is No. 3.

The Pac-12 Conference has three elite teams. Utah is No. 4.

That's the landscape the Cougars and Utes are encountering this week in their conference tournaments. There's some merit in being known as the best of the rest. But to truly distinguish themselves and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, BYU and Utah have to do something extraordinary in Las Vegas — twice each, actually.

BYU's need to overachieve starts Monday night vs. Saint Mary's in the WCC semifinals at Orleans Arena. The Gaels have dominated BYU this season to a degree that no other WCC team has done in the Cougars' six years as league members. Anyone who witnessed Saint Mary's taking a 25-point lead over the Cougars deep in the second half last month in Provo remains scarred.

So it will take something special for BYU to stage an upset and, presumably, get an opportunity to play Gonzaga in Tuesday's championship game. The Cougars' win over then-unbeaten Gonzaga in Spokane to conclude the regular season is a major accomplishment, but a third loss to Saint Mary's — especially by a decisive margin — would reinforce how far BYU fell below the WCC's two-team top tier this year.

Utah is a very similar position in the Pac-12. It is interesting how expectations have framed my view of the season for both BYU and Utah. Because I've said all along that Weber State would be the state's only team to make the 2017 NCAA field, I've been forgiving of the Cougars and Utes for some of their stumbles (the Wildcats, meanwhile, face a tough climb as the Big Sky Conference's No. 3 seed in Reno, Nev.).

The Utes have done well to earn the Pac-12's No. 4 seed in a field with Oregon, Arizona and UCLA. To me, all they have to do to make this season successful is win a quarterfinal game (likely vs. No. 5 California) in the tournament for the fourth time in five years. And then it would get interesting, as they probably would face Oregon, the team that has beaten them each of the past two seasons in Las Vegas. What if they somehow beat the Ducks, though? They would meet the UCLA-Arizona winner, which could be worn out after another battle with the other.

Ultimately, it is asking a lot of either BYU or Utah to rise above its seeding this week. Then come likely NIT bids, with the potential for a rivalry meeting at some point. In the old days, the NIT organizers almost certainly would have made that happen in the first round to drive ticket sales. Now that the NCAA runs the tournament with basketball-driven purposes in mind, the field is seeded and not geographically oriented.

Personally, I would prefer that both teams have to earn the right to play one another in one of the later rounds, somewhere along the road to Madison Square Garden. I'd rather focus on the NCAA Tournament games at Vivint Smart Home Arena next week and then think about a BYU-Utah game in the second or third round of the NIT. But the matchup certainly would be fun to watch, whenever it happens.


Twitter: @tribkurt






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