When thinking about the hotbeds of college basketball a few regions tend to come to mind. The Northeast, home to streetball talent and Big East toughness. Indiana, thanks to that damn movie we’re all supposed to love. Kentucky, with its two perennial powers in the ‘Cats and the Cards. And of course Carolina’s Tobacco Road.
But what about the Beehive State? That’s Utah, in case you’re wondering.
And, yes, I’m serious.
Despite having a population just over 3 million, the state is home to six Division I men’s basketball programs. A seventh, Dixie State, will join the fray next year. It’s a mid-major fan’s promised land, as all but one of those programs play outside of the sport’s power conferences. As for the one defector, the University of Utah, fans of a certain age will remember the days when Rick Majerus turned the Utes into a mid-major darling and national championship contender.
While Beehive State basketball teams haven’t quite been able to recreate the success of the late-’90s Utes in years since, they’ve done pretty darn well for themselves. Jimmermania spread from BYU to every corner of America. Dame Time arrived at Weber State long before the Trail Blazers brought it to the NBA. And now Utah State looks poised to take a step into the spotlight, as the Aggies find themselves ranked in every preseason top 25 I can find.
Of course, having a nationally relevant team or player every few years is important. But what makes Utah’s college basketball environment so great is its sustained quality and depth, year over year.
Since 2000 the state has sent 33 teams to the NCAA Tournament. BYU’s gone 11 times, Utah State has nine, Utah eight, Weber State four and Southern Utah once.
Utah Valley, the state’s lone member of the Never Made the Tournament Club, gets a pass since the team has had D1 conference affiliation for only ten years. Plus, they’ve become a good team lately, having just posted back-to-back 20+ win seasons.
Conference realignment and stubborn power conference coaches have led to the shelving of countless regional rivalries over recent years. Along the Wasatch Front, however, not even a sucker punch can derail these heated rivalries.
This season, the state’s six teams will take on in-state rivals ten times — eight of which come in non-conference play. Weber State, which faces off against Southern Utah twice in Big Sky play, will try to pull off a sweep of its in-state foes as the Wildcats’ schedule includes each of the state’s five other D1 programs.
BYU is set to take on four of the five, with only Utah Valley missing from the schedule. And the Cougars kind of already took on the Wolverines in the off-season by poaching their head coach, Mark Pope, and bringing the former BYU assistant back to Provo.
The only team seemingly afraid of its Beehive State compatriots are the Utes, who have just two in-state games on the docket this season. (Power conference teams, folks. They’re the worst.)
And this season, they might just be the worst team in the state because the state is loaded.
Utah State, as mentioned above, enters the season with a ton of hype. The Aggies, if individual preseason top-25s are any indication, should be comfortably in the preseason AP Poll. The reigning Mountain West champions are coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and bring back conference player of the year Sam Merrill and defensive player of the year Neemias Queta.
Looking to improve upon last season, and perhaps break a painful, four year NCAA Tournament drought are the BYU Cougars. After testing the NBA Draft waters, all-WCC forward Yoeli Childs is back for his final year in Provo — though he is suspended for the first nine games of the season due to a paperwork snafu. And the departure of walking distraction Nick Emery, who retired from basketball in the off-season, should prove to be addition by subtraction.
Weber State has another NBA prospect brewing in senior guard Jerrick Harding. The back-to-back all-conference first teamer is set to lead a Wildcats team that returns most of last year’s squad that went 18-15 — good for fourth in the Big Sky. Improvement is expected in Ogden.
Utah Valley will adjust to life after Mark Pope with new head man Mark Madsen at the helm in Orem. In his first college head coaching job, the two-time NBA champion looks to keep the Wolverines on the rise.
Further south, another program looks to continue its rise. Southern Utah, which just five seasons ago rated as the worst team in the country per KenPom, has improved in the win column for three-straight seasons under fourth-year man Todd Simon.
The Beehive State is always abuzz around college basketball season. This year, with reason for excitement on every campus in the state, it’s time for the nation to turn its eyes to this oft-overlooked paradise of the sport.