Bleeding Red: Young Runnin’ Utes on the verge

The boys had a good run
But did not get it done
So they are a three seed
In the old N-I-T

COMMENTARY – This week the madness that is college basketball in March kicked off. The Pac-12 tournament went as expected, except for two things. The first was two-seed Arizona beating top-seeded Oregon in the championship game. Even sadder was four-seed Utah losing to five-seed Cal in the quarterfinals, ending any hope of the Runnin’ Utes making it into the coveted NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

utesUtah still has a chance to make waves in the postseason as the Runnin’ Utes have been given a third-seed in the NIT. Hopefully, there is still plenty of basketball for them to play before their season officially ends.  However, the beauty of March Madness is that nothing is guaranteed. You could be making a magical 3-week championship run or you could be knocked out on the first day. Either the way the 2016-17 Utah basketball season is coming close to an end, so let’s look back and see what has happened. 

The Runnin’ Utes started the season with only four returning players from the prior season. Only two of those players, Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma, played significant minutes during the prior season, whereas Gabe Bealer, played extremely limited minutes off the bench and Jack Connor more or less held down the bench. Jayce Johnson did join the team mid-season last year, but redshirted and didn’t sniff the court once. The team had a massive makeover, personnel-wise, as the Huntsman Center was flooded with young players and a couple of experienced transfers. It was certainly interesting to see what this team was going to be and how they were going to do.

Picked by the media to finish eighth in the Pac-12 before the season began, Utah started out well in spite of not being at full strength due to transfers David Collette and Sedrick Barefield not being eligible to play until late December. Despite that, the Runnin’ Utes did well – other than two tough losses to Butler and Xavier, and a head-scratching loss to San Francisco. 

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak gathers his players during a timeout in overtime of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in New York. Utah won 77-75. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Going into Pac-12 play, Utah was at full strength again and started off strong. However, their youth and inexperience began to show as the Runnin’ Utes had difficulty pulling out wins in critical moments. The result was heartbreaking near misses at home to Oregon and UCLA as well as in double overtime on the road to Cal. 

Nevertheless, things weren’t all bad. Notwithstanding a lot of young talent and new faces in the locker room, the Runnin’ Utes were a fun team to watch. As the season progressed, the new players, such as freshman Devon Daniels and sophomore JoJo Zamora, began to make more and more of an impact, while the team was led by the experience and consistency of Kuzma, Collette and Bonam. They did have several good victories, such as toppling USC at home in a rout, avenging their overtime loss to Cal at home in another rout, and pulling off a comeback win over Stanford on the last day of the season to clinch the fourth seed in the Pac-12 Tournament.

So, picked to finish eighth, the Runnin’ Utes ended up fourth in the Pac-12! With an almost entirely different squad, they finished just two spots behind where they finished last year. It should also be noted that the three teams that finished ahead of Utah were all ranked in the Top-10 at the end of the season. It was a very respectable season with a very good young team.

I think this season is proof that the Runnin’ Utes will be even better next year and that they are on the verge of becoming relevant in the national rankings again. In fact, I would even say that if this core group can stay together and if Utah can land a couple of good recruits, then they have a very high ceiling and I will use another basketball team that plays not far from the Runnin’ Utes to prove my point.

The Utah Jazz the last couple of seasons have had one of the youngest teams in the NBA. They showed a lot of talent, a lot of promise, and were fun to watch.  However, they had difficulties winning consistently and in clutch moments. In 2016 they were extremely close to getting the eighth seed in the playoffs, yet they disappointingly were not able to pull it out right at the end of the season.

However, a season later the Jazz are currently sitting in the fourth seed in the West and I would not be surprised if they clinch a playoff spot sometime in the next one to two weeks. They are winning more consistently and are proving to be more capable of closing out games in big moments. Gordon Hayward has progressed to All-Star status and Rudy Gobert is close to being there as well. 

I believe Utah is like the Jazz, but one year behind. They, too, have a ton of young talent, yet still need more experience in closing out games in big moments. This year, I think they should have made it to the semifinal match in the Pac-12. Yet, like the Jazz not making the playoffs last season, disappointingly lost a game before that. The Runnin’ Utes are a good team with a fantastic coach and I think that they will grow and, like the Jazz, become better and be a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12. 

Some fans would say that this was a disappointing or down season for Utah, but Coach Krystkowiak would disagree with them.  When told that some would consider this a down year he replied “from fan perspective, it’s a down year? Really?” Again, I would remind you that the Runnin’ Utes finished fourth after being predicted to finish eighth. That is exceeding expectations and was a great season, all things considered.

Here’s hoping Utah starts its run towards Madison Square Garden with a win over Boise State in the Huntsman Center on Tuesday night. 

Bleeding Red is guest-written today by Josh Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

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Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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