SALT LAKE CITY — Utah did it again. For the fourth consecutive season, the Utes have earned a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament with a top-four finish. They’re seeded third this year and will meet the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 6 Oregon and No. 11 Washington State Thursday (9:30 p.m., FS1) at T-Mobile Arena.
Securing a top-four finish is something Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak has spoken about for quite some time. Several weeks ago, when the conference was all jumbled up, Krystkowiak told reporters that the Utes were determined to earn a bye until someone told him it was no longer mathematically possible.
Prior to Saturday’s game against Colorado in the Huntsman Center, Krystkowiak acknowledged being surprised to learn that Stanford’s 84-83 win at Arizona State earlier in the day had simplified things. The Utes needed a victory over the Buffaloes to claim the No. 3 seed. They took care of business with a 64-54 triumph over the Buffaloes, doing so despite losing David Collette to an ankle sprain seven minutes into the contest.
Justin Bibbins stepped forward with 24 points as Utah also withstood a second-half comeback by Colorado. The Buffaloes trailed by 18 in the first half but closed the gap to four in the second half.
Bibbins said the Utes just stayed composed, focusing more on defense than offense.
“We got key stops and it opened up the game,” he explained.
As things shook out, the win put Utah in a tie with Stanford and UCLA at 11-7 in conference play. The Utes, though, won the tiebreaker for third by virtue of a combined record of 2-1 against the other two.
“It feels real good. We knew from the beginning that we were going to be a good team and a team to beat in the Pac-12,” Bibbins said. “But we know our work is not done. This third place only means a bye. We still have to come out there next week and play, just like every other team. Everyone’s record is 0-0 now. We’re happy we finished this season, and we’re ready for the postseason.”
Krytskowiak is stlll trying to figure out why the Pac-12 is perceived as being down this season despite some marquee wins. He’d like somebody to fill him in on that one.
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“It’s no different than a lot of years where teams have done a good job,” Krystkowiak said. “Man, if you get a win over some marquee teams early on and then all of a sudden you’re a .500 team. How is the league down? Maybe the other leagues aren’t quite as good.”
Krystkowiak doesn’t understand why the Pac-12 doesn’t get credit for victories over teams like Kansas, Kentucky and Xavier. He said they’re treated like some sort of fluke.
“But that’s another argument,” Krystkowiak continued. “It’s a good brand of basketball in the Pac-12, and I’m hopeful that we get some people to wake up and realize that and we have a little more presence in the tournament than what the so-called experts are predicting.”
Prognosticators like Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com have the conference earning only three or four NCAA Tournament bids. Utah (19-10) is on the outside looking in at this point, listed among the teams just being left out.
The Utes, who leave for Las Vegas on Tuesday, didn’t lose to either of their possible quarterfinal opponents. They defeated Oregon 66-56 in Eugene on Dec. 29 and topped Washington State twice — Jan. 21 in Salt Lake City (82-69) and Feb. 17 in Pullman (77-70).