Men’s Hoops: Jockeying for a tournament seed

By and

Instead of finding themselves locked in a tight battle for one of the top four seeds in the upcoming MWC tournament, the Runnin’ Utes are in a three-way tie for fifth place after a tough road loss to TCU on Wednesday night.

The Utes will stay out on the road this weekend and go into a hostile environment to face an underrated Wyoming Cowboys team that has already beat Utah on its home floor this season.

This is what a stretch run in the MWC is all about.

Although it was the guard-forward combo of Brent Hackett and Kevin Langford that managed to combine for 35 points against Utah in Fort Worth, Texas, it will be the potent guard duo of Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones that poses the threat on Saturday in Laramie, Wyo.

Jones and Ewing are averaging 28.9 points between them this season. The last time these two teams met, the best guard tandem in the MWC went off for 17 and 21 points, respectively.

Utah head coach Jim Boylen said in his weekly press conference Monday that his team would be renewing its focus on defense this week. He also said that for the Utes to win on the road, they also had to rebound.

Despite outrebounding TCU 34-30 on its home floor (including a 21-15 advantage in the second half), Utah allowed TCU to shoot 48 percent from the field. Additionally, Luke Nevill and Johnnie Bryant managed to get into first-half foul trouble. Luka Drca joined his teammates’ plight in the second half and ended up fouling out late in the game with things still interesting.

Utah, Air Force and TCU all sit at 6-7 in conference play with each team having three games remaining on the schedule. San Diego State is just one game better than those teams in the loss column, but with upcoming meetings versus Colorado State and at Air Force, the Aztecs easily have the cushiest schedule of the MWC’s tightly packed midsection.

Fortunately for the Utes, Air Force and TCU have absolutely brutal schedules heading into mid-March.

This weekend TCU has to go on the road to play UNLV and the Falcons have to go to Provo to face the near-untouchable Cougars. On Wednesday, the Falcons and Horned Frogs have to play one another before San Diego State invades Colorado Springs, Colo., and BYU goes to Fort Worth for the regular season finale.

With all that being said, Utah has two winnable, but by no means gimme games during the next six days. If Utah can take care of Wyoming on Saturday and fend off a desperate Colorado State team on Wednesday, Utah is guaranteed to have at least a share of the No. 5 seed.

But the cliché of taking things one game at a time has never been more applicable for Utah as it is now.

Tyler Kepkay, Bryant, Drca and Carlon Brown have to be able to stop the penetration of Wyoming’s nimble guards and not let either player go off from beyond the 3-point line. If the Utes can do that, they stand a good chance at getting into a solid position come tournament time. If not, Utah will endure its longest losing streak of the season and have an all-but-guaranteed date with either red-hot New Mexico or tournament-host UNLV in the first round of the MWC tournament.

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Lennie Mahler

After a loss to TCU on Wednesday, the Utes find themselves in a tie for fifth in the MWC. If Lawrence Borha and the Utes can’t find a way to finish out their schedule, they could fall to as low as a No. 7 seed in the MWC tournament.