The Utah Utes are one of the great stories of this basketball season. They will also not likely be in the NCAA Tournament, though they have all the look of a NCAA Tournament team as we enter March. Just two years ago, in head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s first season, they were arguably the worst team from a major conference, as they dealt with transfers, injuries, and lack of depth and talent. (Ken Pomeroy wrote about them here). Last year, they moved to respectability, and this year, they have vaulted all the way to being one of the best 50 teams in the country.
With a team that has no senior starters, and really, only one senior in the rotation, Krystkowiak has built a team that is capable of winning in March, behind sophomores Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, and junior shooting guard Delon Wright (who should be in consideration for all-Pac 12). However, it is not likely that you will see them playing in the NCAA Tournament, if the committee follows past precedent.
This is because Utah, at 20-9, has an RPI rating of 75. That rating has risen in the past few weeks (it was outside 90 two weeks ago). According to collegerpi.com, the teams with the lowest RPI to get selected as at-large bids were #67 USC and #64 Marquette in 2011, #63 NC State in 2005, and #63 Stanford in 2007.
Why is the RPI rating so low? It’s because of the weak non-conference schedule. Utah played Boise State on the road, BYU at home, and Fresno State at home. After that, they played a bunch of automatic wins. Some of this is probably related to being ahead of schedule. Two years ago, they were just trying to field a team and get some wins, anywhere.
They’ve also gotten unlucky, and you can blame teams like Jason Whitlock’s alma mater at Ball State. Ball State is 5-23 this year, after being 15-15 a year ago. That kills a team’s strength of schedule. In fact, the weak opponents that Utah played won 23% of their games this year. They won a still-uninspiring 35% a year ago. That may sound uninspiring, and whether those teams won 7 or 10 games in lower leagues tells us nothing about Utah, assuming they win. However, it’s the difference between Utah being inside the RPI top 60, and squarely in Lunardi’s bubble discussion, and never appearing in his first four or next four out.
That’s one of the reasons I created “wins over bubble” as a metric to counter the RPI. It’s still a descriptive system, and not predictive, but it at least tries to account for the differences in where games are played, and how little it really matters if you are a tournament type team and play the 200th or 300th best team in your home gym. By that measure, Utah is 58th right now, not 75th. That would still have them outside, but just barely (the cut is at #52).
They are 58th, and not higher, because they have been unlucky in close games. Utah is 32nd in Pomeroy’s ratings this year. They are 2-7 in games decided by 4 points or less, including 0-3 in overtime. One of those overtime losses came against Arizona, a lock for a top seed. Utah blew out BYU at home, and BYU is considered in the tournament by many. BYU scheduled decent teams non-conference. If Utah would have scheduled a loss at Kansas instead of a game against Ball State, they would probably be in. As Arnie Ferrin is my witness, they would be no different as a team.
The only two losses all year by more four points are at Arizona, and at UCLA. We can also compare them to the other teams on or near the bubble in the Pac-12. They are 3-3, and have outscored those other tournament contenders by 28 points. They are a few plays from being 5-1.
We see fluke results on a single night in college basketball (Wake over Duke is one example), but over the last four games, Utah has taken Arizona to overtime, handled Arizona State and Colorado easily at home, and won at California. Only a tournament caliber team could do that. The tournament should be about taking the best teams. A fair evaluation of Utah suggests they are among the best 50 teams in the country. Don’t expect fairness. Expect Utah to be this year’s Iowa, and instead have to prove the RPI wrong in the NIT.