Here is the University of Utah blue ribbon preview
COACH AND PROGRAM
Utah won at least 20 games nine times over a 10-year period from 1995-2005. Conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances were the norm in Salt Lake City under former coach Rick Majerus.
Ray Giacoletti took over in 2004 and in his first season, the Utes were 29-6. It didn’t hurt that Andrew Bogut was along for the ride. But that great year was followed by two sub-.500 seasons, which included six losses by 20 or more points in 2006-07, and Utah made a change, bringing in former Michigan State assistant Jim Boylen.
Boylen guided the Utes to 18 victories last season. The Utes advanced to the second round of the newly formed College Basketball Invitational. The CBI is not where Boylen and the Utah administration expect the program to compete, but it was an encouraging start.
“What we’ve tried to establish is to become a defensive-minded team that is more physical and that is mentally and physically tougher,” Boylen said. “We want to compete at a higher level, and I think we established that foundation. I’m proud of that, and I think we can build off that.”
Boylen was pleased that his team improved from 74th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.500) the year before he got there to 22nd last season (.418). The Utes’ three-point field-goal percentage defense also improved from .463 in 2006-07 to .355
|Last Season||18-15 (.545)|
|Conference Record||7-9 (6th)|
|Coach||Jim Boylen (Maine ’87)|
|Record At School||18-15 (1 year)|
|Career Record||18-15 (1 year)|
|RPI Last 5 years||36-23-162-132-95|
“What I’m striving for is a player-coached team,” Boylen said. “When we get that, I think we’re going to have a successful group of guys. When I took over, it was a group that played for themselves and didn’t understand the concept of team. I think we’ve made strides where we understand that now, but we have to keep going in that direction.”
Most of the players who were part of last season’s success are back. Boylen returns all five starters, two other key players and welcomes five talented freshmen to the mix. The only significant loss was senior guard Johnnie Bryant (14.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.2 apg).
“How we jell the five freshmen with the guys that are here, and how we mesh as a group and put the team first will be the determining factor in how good we are and how we play,” Boylen said.
Utah returns the best big man in the Mountain West in 7-1 senior Luke Nevill (#50, 15.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.6 bpg). Nevill was a second team all-conference pick last season and led the team in scoring and rebounding.
Boylen brought Nevill off the bench late in the season to keep him out of foul trouble.
“He averaged 16.8 [points per game] the year before I got here and 15.2 last year. But he had 53 blocked shots last year compared to 33 the year before, and he played three less minutes a game,” Boylen said. “I think he used more energy at the defensive end and impacted our team defensively more than anybody we have. That’s why we won 18 games.
“He used to take ownership in how he played. Last year he took ownership in how we played — a big difference. If we’re going to win championships and win games with the schedule we have, he has to be the anchor at the defensive end of the floor.”
Boylen started 6-9 Kim Tillie (#14, 5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) in place of Nevill and liked the production he got from the native of France. Tillie, a junior, could be in that same role this season, but no matter his role, Boylen expects Tillie’s contributions to be vital.
“With his versatility, rebounding and size, I think he’s one of the best defensive players in the league at his position,” Boylen said. “He can run and jump. He’s just a very good player that’s developing. He can play either the four or the five.”
At the four is 6-8 senior forward Shaun Green (#21, 7.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.2 apg), who Boylen describes as a “glue guy.”
Green’s scoring production shrunk nearly four points per game from his sophomore season, but he did other things to help the Utes win.
“He sacrificed some of his scoring last year to become a complete player at both ends,” Boylen said. “He was our leader in assists and is our best passer. He’s a three-point shooter [.512 as a sophomore and .376 last season], but he really played for the team and embraced what the team concept is all about.”
At guard the Utes have a good mix of size and versatility.
Senior Tyler Kepkay (#32, 7.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.1 apg) started 26-of-33 games at the point last season. The 6-0 Kepkay made the Canadian National Team over the summer and is capable of running the team and also scoring. He could be expected to pick up some of the scoring in the backcourt with Bryant’s departure.
“His transformation to the one from a scorer in junior college was rough at times last year, but I feel it was a productive year for him,” Boylen said. “He learned a ton. I expect a big year from him.
“He makes threes and takes open shots. He’s a 41 percent three-point shooter and 84 percent from the free-throw line. He’s a capable scorer but had 68 assists and 68 turnovers last year.”
When Kepkay wasn’t running the point, Boylen went big with 6-5 junior Luca Drca (#5, 5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.7 apg), a native of Serbia.
“He’s a great decision-maker and can see the whole floor,” Boylen said. “His teammates respect him, and he took over the toughness and leadership role on our team at that big guard position.” Boylen also is high on two other guards, 6-3 senior Lawrence Borha (#11, 7.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.1 apg) and 6-4 sophomore Carlon Brown (#15, 4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg).
Borah was statistically one of the most improved players on the team last season. His three-point shooting percentage went up from 27 percent to 43.8, which was tops on the team. His free-throw shooting rose from 66 percent to 82. He played 300 more minutes than the previous season and committed the same amount of turnovers (54).
“He just had an unbelievable transformation,” Boylen said. “He’s a defensive stopper and a very competitive kid. He’s a big part of what we’re building.”
Borah started all 33 games last season, and Brown started the last 29 as a freshman.
“[Brown] was one of our most improved players as the year went on,” Boylen said. “He shot 47 percent from the field and has the ability to create, get guys shots and make plays off the dribble.”
Two of the five freshmen Boylen brought in were runners-up as Mr. Basketball in their respective states.
At 6-4, Jordan Cyphers (#1) averaged nearly 25 points a game as a senior at Wichita Southeast High in Kansas. He is another player who could help pick up the scoring slack for Bryant, even as a freshman.
“He is a catch-and-shoot guy. He has length and athleticism, but he’s six inches taller than Johnnie Bryant,” Boylen said.
Chris Hines (#3) out of Klein Forest High School in Houston played in the state championship game last season. At 6-0, Hines can play both guard positions.
Utah also landed 6-11 center Jason Washburn (#42), who had scholarship offers from LSU and Indiana.
Boylen recruited Washburn out of Battle Creek, Mich., early in his high school career when Boylen was at Michigan State. Washburn was ranked among the top 100 recruits in the nation by one of the national recruiting services.
Boylen also landed two of Utah’s top prep prospects — 6-7 forward Josh Sharp (#30) from Lone Peak High School in Highland and 6-4 guard forward Jace Tavita (#2) from Brighton High School.
“We have guys from winning programs who have specific skills we can use,” Boylen said.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The experience factor alone should vault Utah to the upper half of the conference standings, and perhaps to the top.
You can bet the Utes will be well tested heading into conference play. Boylen put together a big-name non-conference schedule with home games against LSU, Oregon, California and Gonzaga, road games at Oklahoma, Missouri State and Utah State and a neutral-site contest against Ole Miss.If Utah survives the nonconference schedule and the players continue to buy into Boylen’s system, this team will be tough to beat.
Keeping Nevill on the floor will be crucial, because he creates match-up problems for every team in the Mountain West.