It is a fascinating question: Which team needs to win the Pac-12 Tournament — and get the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — more than any other? Here is a follow-up question: If you live within the Pac-12’s geographical footprint, is your own answer different from those who live outside the Western United States?
Within the Pac-12, various fan bases are all hoping that their own team and their own coach can get their sh** together during that one week in Las Vegas, getting hot at the right time and wiping away months of misery to get that precious autobid ticket to the Big Dance.
Maybe Dana Altman can conjure some magic at Oregon, or Andy Enfield can finally flip the switch with his USC team. Maybe Sean Miller can dig deep into his roster and coax some quality performances from his Arizona Wildcats. Even Washington State — having just swept the Arizona schools on the road — can now say, “SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE!” Maybe any team other than California can convince itself that it can get hot in a four-day stretch. Locally, the fan bases of the Pac-12 can all tell themselves they can be the autobid surprise of March Madness.
Nationally, though, what is the likely consensus? I would bet that if you asked most national college basketball observers which team needs to win the Pac-12 Tournament more than any other in the conference, the majority answer would probably be Arizona State. This is the team which defeated Kansas for the second straight year and has stumbled through league play for a second straight season. Bobby Hurley needs to get back to the NCAA Tournament to solidify not only the ASU program, but his own career. If he is going to be Mike Krzyzewski’s replacement at Duke several years from now, he needs to take Arizona State to the next level.
ASU is a perfectly good answer to this question.
Yet, one answer is better in my mind.
Go to Salt Lake City.
The numbers are jarring: Utah Ute head coach Larry Krystkowiak — once dubbed “The Coach K of the West” — is not given that label these days, not when his team is floundering and nowhere near the bubble conversation despite residing in an atrocious Pac-12. He is not earning his top-10 national salary. It is true that Sean Miller is having a terrible season as well, but we can all chalk that up to the dislocations and disruptions enveloping Arizona’s program. If Miller is allowed to coach next season, Arizona should be back to being “Arizona” again.
[bctt tweet=”Utah Ute head coach Larry Krystkowiak — once dubbed The Coach K of the West — is not given that label these days.” username=”CBBToday”]
At Utah, that is not the case. The Utes haven’t been the same program since their run to the 2015 Sweet 16. Krystkowiak has certainly improved the program relative to when he came aboard, and he has had his moments of triumph, but he has not sustained the program the way a coach with a top-10 salary should.
What is especially crazy about this Utah basketball season — yes, even crazier than the fact that Utah is not in the at-large conversation despite playing in a terrible Pac-12 — is that the Utes are doing really well on the road. They just swept the Los Angeles schools in Pauley Pavilion at UCLA and the Galen Center at USC.
Why is Utah not in the at-large convo? It got swept at home by the Oregon schools. It lost at home to Washington. It lost to Nevada at home in a huge non-conference game. If it could just protect its own home floor — which it used to do — Utah would be right there in the at-large hunt. Yet, it won’t sniff an at-large bid. Arizona State is the only non-Washington team in the Pac-12 with a realistic at-large chance at this point.
Therefore, while ASU and Hurley certainly need to win the Pac-12 Tournament in a big way, one team and coach need that tournament championship more. Utah and Larry Krystkowiak both represent an enormous investment in a basketball program, far more than Arizona State.
The Utes, not the Sun Devils, need that autobid more than any other Pac-12 program.
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