Bleeding Red: Time to go to work for Utah hoopsters

As a child, I thought as a child and I played as a child,
But when I became a man, I put away childish things.
The season started out tame, but is about to get wild,
Will Utah now falter, or fly high on transcendent wings?

COMMENTARY — I am sure the apostle Paul did not have sports in mind when he penned the first few lines above. While I most definitely mean no disrespect to Paul or Christianity as a whole, I thought these lines were more than appropriate in describing the transition that the Runnin’ Utes are about to make as they shift gears from a Pollyanna non-conference schedule to the difficult grind of a Pac-12 schedule.

Even I am not so much of a homer that I can overlook the powder puff schedule that Utah has played thus far. However, I don’t necessarily fault the powers that be for putting together such a weak line-up of opponents to begin the season. You have to remember that the Runnin’ Utes only won a total of 15 games last year and only won six games the year before that. With that kind of a history, I believe it was smart to err on the side of caution when it came to putting together this year’s schedule.

Strength of schedule is a true art, not a science. It is virtually impossible to ever determine with any degree of certainty how best to strike an appropriate balance between all of the competing considerations. For example, rather than getting pummeled game after game from the very outset, there is something to be said for giving your team the confidence that it needs to continue to improve and play up to its full potential. On the other hand you want your team to be tested and learn that it takes real effort to win consistently on the big stage.

At times, it has been fun to watch Utah play this year, with the BYU game being the undisputed highlight of the season thus far. At other times, I feel like I wasted my time sitting in the stands as the Runnin’ Utes easily rolled over lesser opponents.

With precious few exceptions, Utah’s non-conference schedule has more or less been child’s play. That is now in the past, and Utah is about to play a real man’s schedule as they enter Pac-12 play, hosting undefeated and No. 12-ranked Oregon at home on Thursday night.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak knows it’s time for his team to grow up.

“We haven’t faced a whole lot of adversity in this preseason,” he said. “I like our guys, (but) we still have a long way to go.”

Has Utah’s soft schedule given them confidence and the opportunity to learn how to win? Or have the Runnin’ Utes simply learned a lot of bad habits playing down to the level of their competition? Is Utah about to experience a rude awakening, or will it serve notice to the Pac-12 that it has finally arrived? We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Pac-12 has proven to be a powerhouse conference in both football and basketball.

Backing up for a moment to football, I am fascinated by the power rankings put out by Jeff Sagarin at sagarin.com. In ranking the conferences across the nation, Sagarin has broken down the SEC into the SEC-West and the SEC-East. Similarly, he has broken the Pac-12 into the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 South. If I’m reading the numbers correctly (which is never a given, and I apologize in advance if I am off-base here), the SEC-West is ranked first, the Pac-12 North is ranked second, the Pac-12 South is ranked third, and the SEC-East is ranked fourth. Additionally, it appears to me that if you combine the rankings of the SEC-West with the SEC-East, and those of the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 South, then the Pac-12 would actually have a higher combined power ranking than the SEC (perhaps that is why Sagarin has broken down the conferences by division — to perpetuate the myth of the SEC as the dominant football conference).

Three out of the four Pac-12 football teams that have played in bowl games so far have won, with the sole loss being Washington State’s 3-point loss to Colorado State. BYU is now 0-2 against Pac-12 teams this year as the Cougars lost to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl. The five Pac-12 teams with bowl games still to play are all favored to win (and many of them are favored by double-digits).

Turning from the turf back to the hardwood, Sagarin has the Pac-12 checking in at No. 5 in his hoops power rankings. Arizona is currently the top-ranked team in the nation, with Oregon and Colorado also ranked nationally.

Playing in the Pac-12, the Runnin’ Utes are truly running with the big dogs. And when it comes right down to it, Utah is going to take some lumps. It would be impossible not to against such quality teams in the conference. The question is, how will the coaches and players handle it when things don’t go their way?

Coach Larry Krystkowiak
Coach Larry Krystkowiak

“There’s going to be a lot of those moments of truth,” Krystkowiak said. “Everybody can handle success when you’re successful. The issue for me is preparation … and we’re getting prepared.”

Only delusional fans truly expected Utah to compete at a high level in football and basketball right out of the chute after joining the Pac-12. However, we are fast approaching the point where the Utes have to prove they belong in the Pac-12. That obviously has not happened yet in football, but the basketball team may turn that corner this year.

I’m still not expecting Utah to compete for a Pac-12 championship in basketball this year. But I truly believe it is reasonable to expect the Runnin’ Utes to be in the middle tier of Pac-12 teams and give fans far more to cheer about than in seasons past.

Here’s hoping that Utah is ready to put away childish things and man up and prove its mettle in Pac-12 conference play.

~

Dwayne Vance is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

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