We're in year three of the Jim Boylen era and most likely witnessing the worst season of his short career. That was to be expected somewhat since this was a rebuilding year. However, the fall from a fifth seed in last year's tournament to barely floating around .500 has been difficult to accept. Mostly because Ute fans had thought they did away with that when the program did away with Ray Giacoletti. That isn't the case.
In fact, this is the worst start for a Boylen team and though there have been glimpses of a good team capable of contending - the regression we see after every big win has to be disheartening. To put it bluntly, Utah basketball is only marginally better than when Boylen took over and that is a concern.
Now don't get me wrong. I am still fully invested in what Boylen is doing here. I expect him to get things turned around and believe the Utes will be contending under his leadership. But it doesn't help ease the grim prospects of this season.
It also doesn't help that our rival, BYU, is dominating under Dave Rose. For sure, they lack the clout of an NCAA Tournament run, however, since he took over for the struggling Steve Cleveland - he has won and done it rather convincingly. It's arguably the most impressive stretch in Mountain West history and this after inheriting a team that went 9-21 in 2005. That feels like a decade ago because it was when the Utes reached its pinnacle in the 00s and BYU bottomed out.
Since that season, the Cougars have produced four straight 20-win seasons (soon to be five), have finished first in the conference the last three seasons and look well on their way to another conference crown. To compare, during the same stretch, the Utes have produced only one season of 20 or more wins (last year) and have stagnated to the bottom-half of the conference. Even in Boylen's first year, the Utes finished with a losing Mountain West record. And though I don't expect that to happen this season, you've got to wonder what Dave Rose is doing down in Provo because his teams lose talent every year and seem to reload comfortably.
Right now, we're losing talent and barely staying afloat. Granted, Luke Nevill was an established player in the paint and Tyler Kepkay proved to be a fairly okay point guard with all his faults, but is this going to be the typical rebuilding we see at Utah or can Boylen turn this program into the type that doesn't see much dropoff from one class to the next?
That's the big issue facing Utah basketball right now. We're not consistently good anymore. We haven't been consistently good since the early part of the last decade. That is an extremely difficult situation to accept knowing just how tradition rich this program is.
It also is hard to accept when teams like BYU, San Diego State, UNLV and even New Mexico seem to succeed even with high talent turnover. Steve Alford is working on winning twenty or more games for the third consecutive season. The last coach to see such success at New Mexico was Dave Bliss and that happened in the old WAC.
Has Utah basketball really fallen that far back? Are we really worse off than the Lobos were when Bliss and Fran Fraschilla and Richie McKay struggled either ethically or on the court? BYU went from 9-wins to 20 in Rose's first season. UNLV has become a perennial winner in the Mountain West after years of being just okay.
Then there is San Diego State. The Aztecs, who beat Utah last night, have produced four consecutive twenty-plus win seasons. They're going for their fifth. A program that was a doormat just a few years ago is now an almost lock at the top.
Utah? We haven't been a lock to finish at the top since the beginning of the 21st Century.
How much longer until we're there? Next season? The year after that?
Tom Petty was right. Waiting is the hardest part. Now hopefully the wait is well worth it. 'Cause it's hell watching all these other Mountain West teams succeed and then watch as our Utes battle it out with TCU, Colorado State, Wyoming and Air Force for the middle of the Mountain West.