Basketball loss to Utah may come back to haunt ASU

It’s a little early to be evaluating the schools that will be “bubble teams” when NCAA Tournament time rolls around in a few weeks.  But if Arizona State becomes one of those men’s teams sitting on the bubble, awaiting the selection committee’s ruling on entry into the Big Dance, the first signs of its bubble losing air may have begun after Wednesday’s loss to Utah.

The Sun Devils have six games left in the regular schedule, and need to beat two of those teams just to get to 20 wins, a general benchmark for consideration by the selection committee.  The season finale with Arizona is really the only game that can realistically be put into the probable-loss column.  The Wildcats are the No. 9-ranked team in the country and beat ASU earlier in the schedule by 17 points.

Conversely, the game with Washington State, the Pac-12 conference’s cellar dweller, should be the one ‘gimme’ for the Devils.  But ASU won their first encounter with the Cougers by just four points.

That leaves two teams that are part of the five-team deadlock at fifth place in the conference: Colorado and USC.

The Devils, who are one of the fifth-place teams at 7-5, beat both of those teams.  They beat Colorado, 65-56, and then went into overtime in one of the season’s highest-scoring performances to beat the Trojans, 98-93.

They also beat UCLA, the No. 3 team in the conference – and by 18 points.

But ASU couldn’t beat Washington, which is sitting in ninth place in the conference.  The Devils put almost 100 points on the board, but came away with a 96-92 loss in Seattle.

So, it’s anybody’s guess how those final six games are going to go.

However, they need to start going ASU’s way.  The Devils have lost three of their last four games, and the one against Utah was definitely the biggest disappointment.  Despite the double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) put up by Carrick Felix – his 10th on the season and seventh in conference play – ASU lost the game in Salt Lake City, 60-55.

Worse still, they came back from a seven-point deficit at the half to take a six-point lead with just under four minutes left in the game, only to let the win slip away with poor shot selection down the stretch as the Utes made a 13-2 run in the final three minutes.

“We didn’t finish the game the way we needed to,” admitted head coach Herb Sendek after the game.  “Tonight, we didn’t do things down the stretch that you need to do on the road in a close game to seal the win.”

But the only thing the selection committee will see when they evaluate ASU’s right to a tournament berth in March is that the Devils lost to a team with just two conference wins entering the game.  Even if it had been a win, it wouldn’t have been against a quality team, which is important in the consideration for post-season play.  The fact that it was a loss could weigh heavily in a bubble decision.

Unless, of course, ASU finishes really strong and then makes a quality showing in the Pac-12 Tournament. Then, maybe the loss to Utah won’t have the same impact.

That challenge begins tomorrow night when they travel to Boulder to take on Colorado (17-7, 7-5) – which dominated ninth-ranked Arizona last night in posting a stunning 71-58 victory that was never in doubt from halftime on.  And it’s the second ranked team that Colorado has beaten in just the last week, taking down No. 19 Oregon on the road.

“They are a very deadly team, especially at home,” UofA forward Solomon Hill said after the game.

And they are on a roll, having won six of their last seven games.

“We don’t have any easy games,” Sendek pointed out after the Utah loss.  “You’ve got to play really well to win.”

And that is going to be especially true tomorrow night in Boulder.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)