People keep an eye on the calendar this time of year, as the New Year symbolizes a new beginning. For the local colleges, the New Year begins a new season, as conference play begins in full after all the midnight celebrations complete.
The preseason had ups and downs for every men’s program in the state. The Utah men, heading into Friday’s matchup against the College of Idaho, has a 7-4 record with wins over SMU and Boise State. That is balanced with losses to CSU Northridge.
Weber State is proving they can compete without NBA draft pick Damian Lillard. They jumped out to a 6-3 record.
Utah State is rebounding nicely from a disappointing finish in WAC play last season, starting 10-1 this year. BYU has a solid record despite zero quality wins.
So what will the new year hold for each school? Will any school have a shot at a conference championship? Will we see multiple bids to the NCAA tournament after only seeing one last year?
BYU consistently has the top program in the state, having reached the NCAA tournament each of the last six seasons and eight of the last 10. Senior Brandon Davies and sophomore Tyler Haws have been stellar for the Cougars on offense. They are off to an 8-4 record, and have a game against Northern Arizona on Thursday and one against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Despite the strong start, the Cougars are clearly a bubble team heading into West Coast Conference play. BYU is 1-4 against teams in major conferences, the one win being a close victory over Utah.
Their game against Utah State has been postponed, but there is no guarantee it will boost their RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), the rating used to help determine who makes the tournament. They sit at 72 on Sunday.
If BYU players want to make the tournament, they will need to make a splash in conference play. This is a relatively down season for the WCC, with only Gonzaga ranked and the other teams below 60 in the RPI. If BYU wants to make the NCAA tournament, players will need to win the conference tournament. Despite Gonzaga being heads above the rest of the conference, tournaments are always unpredictable.
After a forgettable introduction to the PAC-12, Utah can only improve. The Utes finished 11th out of the 12 teams, bowing out to eventual PAC-12 champ Colorado in the first round of the conference tournament. Utah will open conference play against Arizona State on Jan. 3.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak has the team playing much better than in past seasons. But the odds of the Utes earning a bid to the tournament are slim to none.
The team’s inability to win a big game, highlighted by its collapse to Northridge last week, shows it is still a few seasons away from competing for a conference title.
There is still hope for the Utes, but it is a few seasons away. With the upcoming recruiting classes, there could always be a surprise player able to help the Utes.
Krystkowiak is a better recruiter than the other coaches who tried to replace Rick Majerus. Add in the conference affiliation, and the Utes could contend within a few seasons.
Utah State Aggies
Of all the state programs, the Aggies are the hottest, despite having a lighter schedule than almost anyone in the country. They are 1-1 against top 100 RPI teams, beating Santa Clara from the WCC and falling to Saint Mary’s.
The Aggies only have three scheduled games remaining against other top RPI schools, their postponed matchup against BYU and two games against Louisiana Tech. They will also participate in the ESPN Bracketbusters weekend С a potential boost to their tournament resume.
The light schedule will hurt the Aggies if they need a large bid. Luckily for the Aggies, the Western Athletic Conference is very weak. It will be a one-bid conference, and Utah State is the favorite to win the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
The Aggies will start conference play this Saturday against Texas San-Antonio. They will face Louisiana Tech for the early conference lead at the end of January.
Weber State Wildcats
Despite losing the most dynamic player in school history, and possibly Big Sky history, the Wildcats find themselves in familiar water. They sit at the top of the conference with rival Montana staring at them across the table. The winner will receive the lone bid for the NCAA tournament.
If RPI is any indicator, the Wildcats have a slight advantage over Montana, sitting slots ahead of the Grizzlies. Both have started hot in Big Sky play, which opened last week.
They are the only two schools in the conference to start 2-0. Their first matchup will be at the end of January, and it will be in Montana. The return will be played in February.
The Big Sky plays its conference tournament at the home of whichever team finishes in first place. Weber State lost the home court advantage after slipping up at the end of conference play and fell to Montana in Missoula in the championship game.
The two teams are expected to fight for the right to host the conference championship game.
If Weber State ends up with the home court advantage, it will be the favorite to come out of the Big Sky.