When Ray Giacoletti resigned was fired in March of 2007, Utah basketball had hit its lowest point in school history. The program was not used to losing and that's exactly what had happened over the course of Giacoletti's final two years here. When the Utes looked for a replacement, Jim Boylen's name did not register on many people's radar.
The general consensus among Utah fans and the media was that with a failed hire already under his belt, Chris Hill could not afford to botch another one. So it was believed Utah would go after a coach who not only had proven sustained success beyond what Giacoletti had seen at Eastern Washington, but the type of attitude best fit for a place like Utah. So when the Utes actually named Boylen their head coach, there were some questions as to whether he was the one to turn Utah basketball around.
After two years on the job, I think it's safe to say those concerns were premature and Boylen has exceeded most of our expectations.
To get a grasp of what Boylen has actually done, we've got to visit the past, however painful it may seem. The program he inherited was soft, mentally weak, void of talent and stuck in a losing mindset. To break that would not be easy and it's something Boylen made his mission the second he accepted the Utah job. In fact, he was extremely blunt in assessing Utah, saying they played like a bunch of pussies. For the Utes to have any type of success, that would have to change.
When a team is soft, it's unlikely they have what it takes to compete for any type of championship. That was evident in Giacoletti's final two years, as his teams were constantly outmuscled in every possible way imaginable. This was frustrating for local fans, because over the years we had not only become accustomed to physical toughness with the Utes under Rick Majerus, but also with Jerry Sloan's Utah Jazz. It was a staple in the local basketball community and something that quickly unraveled post-Bogut.
So Boylen's first act was to make Utah tougher physically. In his words, if you drove the lane, you were going to get hit. And that's exactly what happened in his first season, as the Utes made sure no team would get to the hoop unscathed. It was a philosophy that Sloan has employed with the Jazz for the last 20 years and though it caused a spike in fouls, it also set a tone that ultimately paid off this season.
But physical toughness was only half the battle, as Utah had proven to be a very mentally weak team. Too many mistakes, especially in the final minutes of a close game, plagued the Utes in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. This was a mindset that could not be exorcised in one season, which became evident when Utah continued to lose close contests in Boylen's first year.
The biggest difference between 2007 and 2008, of course, was the fact Boylen's teams rarely rolled over. In Giacoletti's final season with the Utes, it became extremely common to watch them wilt when the opposing team went on a run and they rarely ever recovered.
It is true Boylen's Utes in his first year often suffered from the same scoring droughts that led to the collapses we saw under Giacoletti, but instead of giving up, they would often bounce back, make it a game and in some instances, win. Yes, there were struggles and losses that at the time felt very similar to what had happened the year prior, but there was an obvious improvement between 2007, 2008 and this season.
In Giacoletti's final season, 2007, Utah was 6-11 in games decided by ten or fewer points. That's pretty significant, since those 17 games made up over 55% of Utah's schedule. Had Giacoletti managed to flip that statistic and gone 11-6, it's almost certain he returns for the 2008 season.
In Boylen's first season, 2008, Utah was 6-13 in games decided by ten or fewer points. That might seem very similar to Giacoletti's record, but the biggest difference between 2007 and 2008 has to be measured in what happened outside of those close games. As I mentioned earlier, developing mental toughness would prove to be a multi-season endeavor for Boylen. Where he gained was in minimizing blowouts at the hands of the opposition. That's something Giacoletti could not do and Boylen did well in his first season. This provided the cushion for the inevitable meltdowns in tight games, which was evident in Utah's increased win total from 11 to 18 in a span of a season.
This year, however, there was a huge uptick when it came to winning close games, as Utah was 12-7. That's a six-game increase over Giacoletti's final season and Boylen's first. The success in close games was the difference between the season the Utes got and a season similar to what Utah had last year. But most importantly, it showed progress from year one to year two and that was ultimately what Utah fans were hoping to see.
Accountability might be the most important aspect of athletics. Unfortunately, it was something lacking under Giacoletti and that was something Boylen quickly changed. Instead of allowing players to get away with pretty much anything, whether in the classroom or on the court, Boylen set the rules and each and every player was expected to follow them. That proved beneficial, especially in academics, and because of it, Boylen established respect, which was lacking under the old regime.
What this brought to the program was much needed discipline and that was the template Boylen used to quickly turn around Utah basketball, even with questionable talent.
With the program's footing established this season, Boylen now needs to build his program. The last two seasons were done heavily with Giacoletti recruits and the next two and three will prove whether Boylen can sustain the success he built this year. Based on how quickly he changed the mentality at Utah, I'm confident the future will surpass this year's results.