COACH AND PROGRAM
In two years, Utah went from a No. 6 seeding in the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16 to a No. 7 seeding in the MWC Tournament. Last year's 11-19 mark, the program's worst since the 1983-84 season, ended the three-year tenure of coach Ray Giacoletti.
Succeeding someone as successful as Rick Majerus, who went 323-95 in 15 seasons in Salt Lake, isn't easy, and Giacoletti, aside from the loaded 2004-05 team, which featured No. 1 NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut, was never able to win over the faithful. Attendance dropped nearly 13 percent during his term, and by the end of last season, Giacoletti seemed to have lost the team and any remaining support in the community, necessitating a change.
The primary source of last season's problems was a porous defense. The Utes allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field, which ranked 322nd out of 325 Division I teams.
Given its defensive deficiencies, Utah athletic director Chris Hill turned his attention to the ever-fertile Tom Izzo coaching tree, hiring highly regarded Jim Boylen to restore the program to prominence. After more than 20 years of experience as an assistant, in the NBA and collegiate ranks, Boylen is ready for his first head-coaching job.
''It's a dream come true,'' he said. ''It's something I've worked for and prepared for & I'm excited. I think we have a chance to build something really special. We have a great basketball community. People are passionate about the U and we have great tradition.''
Boylen was able to get an early jump on re-establishing the Utes with a two-week trip to Australia in August. The trip allowed Boylen and his new team to begin adjusting to each other and it helped the Utah players begin understanding the expectations Boylen has for them.
The two things Boylen will expect from every member of the team are a commitment to defend and personal accountability for on-court mistakes, things that were lacking last season.
''You have to trust each other at the defensive end,'' Boylen said. ''[There were situations] where guys didn't cover for guys, guys didn't slide over and help. Guys didn't communicate [last season]. & Players have to take ownership of what happens on the floor and they have to be accountable for mistakes and learning from them. Accountability is saying, 'Hey I messed that up and I'm going to improve on it.' That's where we have to improve. It can't always be somebody else's fault.''
The Utes, whose primary defense will be man-to-man, do have the luxury of four returning starters and five of the team's top six scorers, but the returnees will have to earn their minutes. Heading into fall practice the only player with virtually no chance of being moved out of the lineup is 7-1 junior Luke Nevill (16.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, .637 FG).
Nevill, who ranked ninth in the country in field-goal percentage a season ago, can be a dominant offensive player. The Perth, Australia native can score with either hand and is an excellent passer, either facing the basket or working with his back to it. Where Nevill needs to improve is on the defensive end. He needs to do a better job providing help to his teammates and with his size, he should become a more feared shot-blocker -- he had 33 last season.
''Where he needs to improve is he needs to take more ownership of wins and losses and not just how he plays,'' Boylen said.
Shaun Green (11.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, .512 3PT), a 6-8 sophomore, is the returning starter at power forward. Green is a tremendous shooter, draining 64 three-pointers last season, though he is undersized to play power forward at 208 pounds. Green is also an excellent passer; he finished with 78 assists a season ago, second most on the team.
''He's always been the best shooter and he's relied on that,'' Boylen said. ''What I've challenged him to do is become a complete player & Understand the game better, make other players better. That's his challenge.''
Green, who started 28-of-30 games last season, will be challenged for playing time by 6-9 sophomore Kim Tillie (2.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg), who was limited to just 11 games last season after suffering a broken leg. The team's most athletic player, Tillie has a very good jump hook and could be poised for a breakout campaign. Though Tillie weighs just 205 pounds, Boylen said he can play either interior position and is more than capable of playing with his back to the basket.
Tillie, a native of Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, played very well on the Australia trip, and the only thing standing between him and being a very good player is experience.
Freshman Morgan Grimm (Riverton, UT/Riverton High School) will also compete for court time. The 6-9 Grim was a three-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, who averaged 21 points and eight rebounds en route to earning Utah Class 5-A MVP honors as a senior.
The likely starter at small forward is 6-6 sophomore Stephen Weigh (5.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg). Weigh, who started every game on the wing during the trip to Australia, is an excellent outside shooter and at 220 pounds has the strength to take smaller defenders inside.
Freshman Carlon Brown (Riverside, Calif./Martin Luther King), who also had offers from Iowa State, Marquette and Nebraska, can play either shooting guard or small forward. Given the Utes' relative lack of size in the backcourt, the 6-4 Brown could see minutes behind Weigh. Luke Drca (2.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg), a 6-5 sophomore, could also figure into the mix.
The most fiercely contested battles for playing time may take place in the backcourt as Boylen looks to identify a leader. Johnnie Bryant (15.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.7 apg), a 6-0 senior and the only player to start all 30 games last season, returns, but it may be in a different role. Brown was ninth in the MWC in scoring and led the Utes in assists a season ago, but he isn't a true point guard.
Neither does he have ideal size to be a two-guard. What Bryant does have is a silky shooting stroke; last season he drained a team-high 88 three-pointers and finished 31st in the country in three-point field-goal percentage.
''He's a guard,'' Boylen said of Bryant. ''I wouldn't call him a one and I wouldn't call him a two. He's a guard. I think he will be coming off the bench as our sixth man playing either guard spot.''
Bryant thrived in the role of sixth man in Australia, and Boylen likes the idea of having his experience and firepower off the bench. Regardless of when he enters the game, Bryant will play significant minutes.
The most likely candidate to run the point is high-scoring junior-college transfer Tyler Kepkay (Vancouver, B.C./College of Eastern Utah), a 6-0 junior who averaged 27.9 points, 3.9 as-sists and 3.2 rebounds per game last season. A first-team NJCAA All-American, Kepkay led the JUCO ranks in scoring, was fifth in free-throw percentage (.882) and 22nd in three-point field-goal percentage (.474). Despite his offensive firepower, that's not why he's a Ute.
''He's a talented offensive player, but his strengths are his toughness, his competitiveness and his leadership,'' Boylen said. ''Those are the reasons we recruited him.''
Lawrence Borha, a 6-3 junior, is likely to retain his starting spot at shooting guard. Borha, the team's best on-ball defender, is a physically tough player, but he will have to cut back on his turnovers. He isn't a great shooter (.278 3PT) but the Utes have plenty of offensive firepower. Borha will provide the grit.
Chris Grant (0.7 ppg, 0.4 rpg), a 6-3 senior, and 6-3 sophomore Curtis Eatmon (1.6 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 1.1 apg) will also fight to earn backcourt minutes.
Utah will be a much tougher team this year -- Boylen won't have it any other way. One of six Tom Izzo disciples currently holding D-I head coaching jobs, Boylen will challenge his play-ers from day one, demanding that they play to his standards.
The biggest factor in determining how much Utah improves will be the team's willingness to embrace his tough-love philosophy. There was some grousing last season about shots and they way the offense was being run. Don't expect any of those concerns to be aired publicly this season.
Nevill should be one of the MWC's best, but he must do more than post impressive numbers. He has to make a much greater commitment to defense, rebounding and the team concept.
Bryant's apparent willingness to move to the sixth man role is a good sign that the Utes are buying what Boylen is selling. The program is a long way from its Majerus-led heyday, but there is enough talent to expect more than 11 wins.
Utah is thin up front, but if Nevill plays to his capability and Kepkay is as good as advertised, the Utes ascent could be faster than people imagine.
Last Season 11-19 (.367)
Conference Record 6-10 (t-6th)
Starters Lost/Returning 1/4
Coach Jim Boylen (Maine '87)
Record At School First year
Career Record First year
RPI Last 5 years 19-39-21-165-137
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS