Bleeding Red: As March Madness nears, Runnin’ Utes exceeding expectations

Once again, the media has proved
They don’t know what to do with the U
While the Red Rocks bye-ed and got some rest
The Runnin’ Utes rose above the rest

COMMENTARY – With the regular season over, it’s time for the madness of March to begin!

utesUtah finished up its regular season with a home game against Colorado. In a tale of two halves, the Runnin’ Utes came out strong in the first half, only to struggle in the second half. Fortunately, they were able to hold on in the last few minutes to get the win against the Buffaloes and elevate themselves to a three seed in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.

After the media predicted in the pre-season a seventh-place conference finish for Utah, who could have possibly thought that they would end up getting as high as third? Oh yeah, I did!

In the pre-season media poll, the Runnin’ Utes were projected to finish in seventh place. If you will remember, I looked at that prediction and thought it was a bit off. Just like last season, the media was underestimating Utah. Before the 2016-17 season the media predicted that the Runnin’ Utes would finish in eighth place and the Runnin’ Utes ended up in fourth place – four spots higher than the media’s prediction. So, I looked at Utah’s supposedly seventh-place finish this season and thought that the media was off by about four spots yet again. Back on Oct. 23, before a single game had been played, I predicted a 3rd place conference finish for the Runnin’ Utes. Now it is the end of the season and Utah is going to Las Vegas as the three seed in the conference tournament. Maybe next season the media won’t be so quick to count the Runnin’ Utes out as a top team in the Pac-12.

Despite winning six of the last seven games, Utah did struggle a bit early in the season with losses to UNLV, Butler, and even BYU. The Runnin’ Utes opened conference play 2-2 after dropping their first two home conference games to Arizona and Arizona State (who were ranked No. 14 and No. 4, respectively, at the time). Those losses didn’t help Utah’s resume for purposes of the NCAA Tournament and it looked like the Runnin’ Utes might have to settle for the NIT, again.

The Runnin’ Utes will need forward David Collette in the postseason | File photo by Rick Bowmer, AP

However, after finishing third in the conference, Utah has a legitimate shot at playing in the real tournament. The only guarantee is the automatic bid that goes to the winner of the conference tournament in Las Vegas this weekend. Even without earning the automatic bid, the Runnin’ Utes can still make enough noise to lift them into the big event.

As the No. 3 seed, Utah will get a first round bye before playing the winner of Oregon and Washington State on Thursday night. To give them the best chance of making it to the Big Dance, the Runnin’ Utes will need to win their quarterfinal game (the bigger the better) and at least make a good showing in their semifinal game. If Utah can make it to the conference final, then even better. But in order to get there, they will most likely need to beat USC, who has already beaten the Runnin’ Utes twice this season (unless Washington upsets the Trojans in the quarterfinals, or, heaven forbid, Oregon State puts on the glass slipper and plays the role of Cinderella in the conference tournament).

The simple reality is that Utah has a legitimate shot of getting into the NCAA Tournament.

Part of the challenge for Utah in making a run in the tournament will be the health of David Collette. This season, Collette has been one of the best offensive players for the Runnin’ Utes, so it was more than a little bit scary when he had to be helped off the court during the Colorado game after spraining his ankle. At the moment, it is unknown whether he will be able to play in the conference tournament this week. If he doesn’t, then that will certainly be an obstacle that Utah will need to deal with and one or more other players will have to step up in order to make a run into the postseason.

In the gymnastics world, the Red Rocks had a bye week. It came at a good time, since it gives MyKayla Skinner time to get back to full strength after tweaking her ankle a couple of weeks ago against UCLA. They will be back in action next week as the Red Rocks go on the road to compete with No. 7-ranked Michigan this Saturday.

The Runnin’ Utes will also be on the road in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament. Their first game will be on Thursday, March 8, at 8:30 p.m. PT.

Here’s hoping that the Runnin’ Utes can make a splash in Vegas and the Red Rocks can turn out strong in Ann Arbor after their bye week.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Josh Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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