The end is fast drawing nigh
But it’s not yet time to sigh
It’s that time of year again
So let the madness begin
COMMENTARY — There are a few notable similarities between how the Runnin’ Utes play basketball and I play golf.
Golf purists typically do not like to play golf with a hack like me who only plays occasionally and rarely plays very well. I didn’t grow up playing in a country club, and I still stick out like a sore thumb on a golf course. In fact, at times I have been included in a round with outright golf snobs who berate me for having the gall to wear a shirt on the course without a collar, not to mention the tie-dye t-shirt I typically wear.
I still hear people say that Utah does not belong in the Pac-12 in basketball (or in football). Admittedly, the Runnin’ Utes have historically played in lesser conferences. Nevertheless, I truly believe they have earned their current spot in the Pac-12 and that they belong. Coincidentally, some of the existing Pac-12 teams were former conference mates of Utah, including Arizona and Arizona State in the WAC, and Colorado from the Skyline Conference.
I also make liberal use of mulligans. Rather than letting a bad shot get to me and define how I play the rest of the round, I simply shake it off and swing again.
The Runnin’ Utes have definitely had their ups and downs throughout conference play this year. However, rather than letting a bad game, especially a close loss, get to them, they simply shake it off and come back ready to play the next game. Utah is about to take its biggest mulligan of the year going into the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas this week. While the regular season standings have determined seeding and first round byes, from this point forward each team still controls its own destiny. Win and move on; lose and go home.
However, one of my traits that is the most maddening to hardcore golfers is the occasional shot that I blast down the center of the fairway far beyond the other balls when virtually every hole I had played up to that point would lead you to believe it was impossible for me to keep the ball anywhere near the fairway for more than 20 yards at a time.
Just when other teams think Utah has taken its best shot, the Runnin’ Utes will shine and surprise somebody. Other Pac-12 teams will look past Utah this week at their own peril. True, the Runnin’ Utes have been wildly inconsistent throughout conference play. Although Utah has lost to 8 of the other 11 Pac-12 teams, Utah has also beaten 8 of the other 11 Pac-12 teams. The only three teams the Runnin’ Utes haven’t beaten are Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.
However, Utah only played Oregon and Stanford once, losing to the Ducks at home in the conference opener by two points in overtime, and losing to the Cardinal on the road in the conference finale by a single point. Neither of those games should give either Oregon or Stanford anything but a false sense of security.
Arizona is the only team to beat the Runnin’ Utes twice. But still, it is notable that in the first game on the road, Utah led Arizona by as many as 10 points, and had a two-point lead with 11 minutes to play in the game. In the rematch in Salt Lake City, the Runnin’ Utes did not finally succumb until overtime.
In other words, there is not a single team in the conference that Utah cannot beat. At the same time, there is not a single team in the conference to which Utah cannot lose. In fact, a single game separates Oregon with the third seed at 10-8 from Washington with the ninth seed at 9-9. This is going to be a very evenly-matched conference tournament that promises to deliver multiple nail-biting games. I can’t wait — I love it!
A few parting shots are in order at the end of the regular season.
For the first time in history since Utah joined the Pac-12, for a brief shining moment the Runnin’ Utes had a winning record at 9-8 after beating Cal. Unfortunately, Utah gravitated back to the middle at 9-9 after the loss to Stanford. In order to end the season with the first winning conference record since joining the Pac-12, Utah is going to have to beat both Washington on Wednesday and Arizona on Thursday and make it to the semifinals on Friday. Quite frankly, if the Runnin’ Utes can take care of the Wildcats, there is no reason why they can’t go all the way and automatically stamp their ticket to the Big Dance.
Say what you will about Utah’s strength of schedule at No. 71 in the nation according to Jeff Sagarin, especially the admittedly weak non-conference schedule, but the Runnin’ Utes have proven they can run with the big dogs, and Sagarin’s most recent power rankings have Utah at No. 35 in the nation. Similarly, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, which is supposed to measure both how well a team has performed and how powerful it is likely to be going forward, has Utah at No. 34. All things considered, I’d say that’s pretty respectable. Let’s just say that the team down south is even further south in both ranking systems.
Perhaps the Runnin’ Utes can reach deep into their golf bag and tee up a deep run into the postseason. Here’s hoping they make the most of their mulligan this week and make an even bigger splash in the Pac-12 tournament than their surprising run last year. Go Utes!
Utah vs. Washington, Pac-12 First Round, Wednesday @ noon
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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