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KenPom: College basketball in Utah is better than ever

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SALT LAKE CITY — Early in the season, people ask me what the big stories are in men's college basketball. It's often a difficult question to answer, because what I'm following is not always what other people might be following. But as least locally, the answer is easy: College basketball in the state of Utah is back, baby!

There are various ways to prove this, but let's start with reviewing the last quarter century for the state. Here's a plot of the winning percentage of the five "legacy" teams in the state (Utah, BYU, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah) who have been playing basketball at the Division I level since the turn of the century.

State of Utah winning percentage.
State of Utah winning percentage. (Photo: KenPom)

There was a period of great basketball in the early 2000s as Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State all enjoyed a peak at the same time. Even though winning percentage peaked in 2001, 2003 had a record four teams from the state make the NCAA Tournament. Then there was another, lesser, peak from 2008-11, partly fueled by the presence of Jimmer Fredette and Damian Lillard.

But the period from 2012 to 2020 was truly the dark age for local college hoops. As a group, the five teams failed to win 60% of their games in each season during that span, including a couple of years where they produced an aggregate losing record. The darkest part of the dark times was the 2017 season, where teams went a combined 75-82 against Division I competition and produced zero NCAA Tournament bids.

But last season was a big-time renaissance as the Utah Five went a combined 79-39. That's a winning percentage of 66.9%, which was the fourth-best for the state's teams in the past 25 years, just slightly below the best over that time — 68.7% in the 2001 season.

While just BYU and Utah State made the NCAA Tournament, Weber State went 17-6 and Southern Utah quietly went 20-4, the 10th-best winning percentage in the entire country. Utah was probably the disappointment of the state but still finished 44th in my ratings after going 12-13 against the 25th toughest schedule in the land.

And if we use the average kenpom rating, which accounts for the quality of opponents and scoring margin, it was the best season for the state over that time. The average rating of the teams was 12.07, easily outpacing the previous best of 10.37 set in 2009. The resurgence looks more impressive by this measure:

State of Utah average KenPom rating.
State of Utah average KenPom rating. (Photo: KenPom)

The reason for this investigation is really not what happened last season, though, it's what's happening this season. Each of these teams is off to a good start. The five teams we're talking about are a combined 24-8 against DI teams. That win rate of 75% will come down as the rigors of conference play take their toll, but early indications are that area teams are picking up where they left off last season.

You can see in the plot of kenpom rating that the state's average for the 2022 season is slightly down from last season, but it would still be the second-highest of the last 25 years. We're only a quarter of the way through the season, but the early indications are promising and the potential is there for another solid year.

It's unlikely the state will produce four tournament bids like it did in 2003; but in terms of overall goodness, the state may be as good as it's been in the modern era. Since Southern Utah joined the Mid-Continent Conference in 1997, there's never been a season where all five teams had a winning conference record. But there's an outside shot of that happening this season.

Barring an unfathomable collapse, BYU and Weber State will accomplish that feat; and Utah State and Southern Utah should pull it off as well. The Utes would have to overachieve to have a winning Pac-12 record, but it's possible.

After Wednesday's 93-73 loss at USC, I have Utah projected to go 9-11 in conference. But the Pac-12 is down enough that a winning record is a legitimate goal. Washington, Cal, and Oregon State have struggled mightily to start the season, and Arizona State scored a total of 29 points in their conference-opening loss to Washington State this week. The Utes will be favored in most Pac-12 games at the Huntsman Center and possibly on the road against the bottom of the league as well.

(And we haven't even talked about Utah Valley, who has won seven in a row after its upset of BYU on Wednesday.)

It's true there's no story to captivate hoops fans like Utah's run to the NCAA title game in '98 or the way Lillard and Fredette torched their opponents a decade ago; but as far as satisfaction among fan bases, we're probably at a high last seen in decades, or maybe ever.

BYU, Weber State, Southern Utah have some of their best teams ever and Utah and Utah State are performing well considering they have new coaches. Whether you're a fan of a particular team or not, there will be games every week with conference title or NCAA Tournament seeding ramifications somewhere close by.

College basketball in the state of Utah is back.


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