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ESPN’s Lunardi not expecting too much from Utah teams

        SALT LAKE CITY — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has ranked all 358 Division I men’s college basketball teams in the nation as a precursor for his annual bracketology throughout the season .

     And, if the early forecast means anything, only Big Sky Conference favorite Southern Utah may represent the state in the NCAA tournament. The Thunderbirds are picked to edge Weber State for the league title in Lunard’s predictions.

     “Southern Utah compiled arguably the best season (20-4 overall, 12-2 Big Sky) in program history, only to drop an overtime heartbreaker to Montana State in the conference tournament semifinals,” Lunardi wrote. “Look for the Thunderbirds to finish the job in 2022.”

     BYU is the state’s top-ranked team at No. 40. The Cougars are picked second behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Coast Conference and are labeled as an “NCAA bubble” team.

   Lunardi’s comments: “You might have heard that Gonzaga is again pretty good. What you might not know is that top-100 programs account for at least half of the WCC. Even with BYU’s pending departure, this is a very good league in basketball and beyond.”

     In the Mountain West, Utah State is picked fifth behind Colorado State, San Diego State, Nevada and Boise State. The Aggies are ticked for an NIT berth.

“    The top four teams in the Mountain West are all good enough to win a game in the NCAA tournament,” noted LunardiThe challenge, of course, is getting there. The conference hasn’t gone past two bids since 2015, but it has a real chance to break through in 2022.”

     Utah’s hopes of doing so in the Pac-12, though, aren’t nearly as strong. Lunardi has the Utes picked to finish 11th. Lunardi gives them an NIT prognostication.

     “Most notable about the Pac-12 isn’t UCLA’s return to glory, significant though it might be. No, the best news for the conference is the marked improvement among recent bottom teams,” Lunardi said. “Perennial doormat Washington State is nearing NCAA status, Oregon State is coming off an NCAA bid, and Cal finally appears headed in the right direction.”

     The wacky WAC isn’t expected to be all that competitive for Utah Valley and Dixie State. The Wolverines and Trailblazers are picked seventh and 11th overall.

     “The WAC didn’t just raid the Southland Conference, it took several of the SLC’s top programs in Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and Sam Houston State,” Lunardi explained. “The WAC has serious designs on becoming a top mid-major outfit and will take another step in that direction next year when Chicago State bids goodbye to the league.”

*****

Lunardi’s national rankings

No. 40 — BYU

No. 81 — Utah State

No. 94 —  Utah

No. 115 — Southern Utah

No. 125 — Weber State

No. 213 — Utah Valley

No. 304 ‚— Dixie State

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