SPORTS

Conference Play Begins For Local College Basketball Programs

Jan 2, 2019, 8:53 PM
Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) breaks for the ball as center Jayce Johnson (34) blocks Brigha...
Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) breaks for the ball as center Jayce Johnson (34) blocks Brigham Young Cougars guard Connor Harding (44) at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – For the local college basketball teams, the nonconference portion of the schedule is over. Now it’s time to face conference foes and these games matter. Remember, conference games affect seeding in the conference tournament, and the conference tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, it’s imperative that each school plays its best basketball from this point on.

Each local team will face varying challenges as conference play begins.

Utah Utes

The Utes had a mixed bag of nonconference opponents. They played some really tough teams in Kentucky and Nevada as well as some lesser competition in Florida A&M and Northern Arizona, among others.

With a 6-6 record after nonconference play, it may be difficult to forecast how the Utes will face in Pac-12 play. They’ve beaten the lesser opponents but have been blown out by strong teams. Their 74-59 loss to BYU in the Beehive Classic might be the most telling indicator of where they stand in terms of local power.

Utah has been working a new lineup lately where leading scorer Sedrick Barefiled comes off the bench to provide an offensive spark. The Utes are 2-1 in games where Barefield has not started.

The Utes were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 in the preseason poll, with Oregon picked to win the conference.

Utah will begin conference play with a trip to Tempe to face Arizona State on Thursday at 6 p.m. the game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.

BYU Cougars

Looking at BYU’s upcoming West Coast Conference schedule is also a bit of a muddled mess. The Cougars beat in-state rivals Utah State and Utah, but had lost to Weber State earlier in the young season.

With an 8-7 record, the Cougars have already suffered two three-game losing streaks.

In the top-heavy WCC, Gonzaga will stand alone in the top tier as one of the nation’s best teams, period. BYU and Saint Mary’s are definitely the only two members of the second tier, as the rest of the conference definitely plays at a lower level and has since BYU entered the conference.

In the preseason, the Cougars were picked to finish third, behind Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.

While it may appear that the Cougars and the Gaels will be battling for second place in conference play, anything could happen. After all, BYU did beat No. 1 Gonzaga on the road a few years ago. The Cougars will likely need to pull off a similar upset to claim the WCC title, ideally in the conference tournament.

Utah State Aggies

In head coach Craig Smith’s first season, it appears that the Aggies may already be exceeding expectations.

Smith became the first coach in Aggie history to win 10 of his first 13 games as Utah State enters conference play Wednesday against Nevada.

The problem for Utah State, who was picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll, is similar to BYU’s dilemma. The problem being, the top dog in the conference is the runaway favorite to win it.

Nevada, like Gonzaga in the WCC, is a top-ten team in the country and come spring time could make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah State has looked brilliant at times this season with solid wins over Utah Valley and Saint Mary’s and a near win against Arizona State, but they’ll need a miracle to get past Nevada.

Wednesday’s game in Reno will be a great measuring stick of where Utah State stands in comparison to the elite team in the Mountain West Conference.

Utah Valley Wolverines

The Wolverines have gotten off a great start to their season with an 11-4 mark in nonconference play.

They’ve proven to be almost unbeatable at home by racking up an 18-game home winning streak.

While they were blown away by BYU, Saint Mary’s and Utah State, they hung tough with one of the nation’s top teams, Arizona, for three-fourths of the game in an 80-69 loss.

UVU was picked to finish third in the preseason poll with New Mexico State tabbed as the favorite to secure the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies look like a legit contender to win the WAC crown, as they also have started with 11 wins and have played a much tougher schedule. They’ve beaten Washington State twice and took No. 2-ranked Kansas to the wire in a 63-60 loss.

It’s not a stretch to assume that UVU and New Mexico State will be compete for the conference title in the regular season and then perhaps meet up for a bid to The Big Dance in the conference tournament. Fingers crossed.

UVU will begin its conference play with a road meeting with Grand Canyon Thursday at 6 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the WAC Digital Network.

Weber State Wildcats

The Wildcats have the fortune of being coached by the Big Sky Conference’s all-time winningest coach in Randy Rahe. The respect he carries around the conference was evident in the preseason poll, which picked Weber State to finish second in the Big Sky.

The thing is, the top-voter, Montana, was a runaway favorite to win the conference and make it to the NCAA Tournament, as the Grizzlies did last season.

So far this season, the Wildcats have shown some strength. The 113-103 win over BYU on December 1, was great for the program’s in-state image. However, the momentum of the victory didn’t last long as the Wildcats went on to lose three straight to Fresno State, Utah State and Utah Valley.

However, it is conference play that matters most and Weber State is off to a good start with an early 2-0 record in Big Sky play.

The Wildcats will host Northern Arizona next on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Southern Utah Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds surged out to an early 3-0 record with some nice wins over San Jose State and Seattle University. They also nearly knocked off UNLV in a slim 76-71 defeat on November 23.

However, after going 2-2 after the UNLV game, Southern Utah experienced a 91-49 thrashing at the hands of USC on December 21.

That was bad, but fortunately for the Thunderbirds, they don’t play in the Pac-12, so the blow out loss really won’t have an effect on their postseason chances.

They will however, have to make some noise in the Big Sky, which so far has proven to be a challenge. Early on, the Thunderbirds hold a 0-2 record in conference play with losses to Montana State and Montana.

It’ll be an uphill climb for SUU, who was picked to finish in a tie for sixth in the conference, to advance to the postseason.

SUU’s next conference game is scheduled for Thursday at 7:05 p.m. on the road against Idaho State.

  • Utah Utes Scoreboard

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  • BYU Cougars Scoreboard

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  • Utah State Aggies Scoreboard

  • Utah State Aggies Team Leaders

  • Utah State Aggies Standings

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