No one thought this season would be easy for Utah. They lost too much talent to sustain the type of success we saw last year. However, I don't know if you'll find many people who thought it would be this bad.
But how did it get to this point?
That's not an easy question to answer. I don't think there is just one or two problems with this team. It's a whole host of issues that have, unfortunately, bogged them down in worse-than-mediocrity. For this season, we give Jim Boylen a pass because he's only a year removed from guiding the program to a conference title (both in the regular season and tournament), along with a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Doing that, in only his second year at Utah, proved to be pretty remarkable.
Yet the success last season does not ease every concern fans have for this program. A proven, sustained level of winning can only do that and right now, whether you like Boylen or not, we can at least all agree that has not happened yet here at Utah, specifically in Mountain West play.
Utah is a 17-loss team for a reason. The fact this team saw very minimal progression from the start of the season to last night happened for a reason. To make the leap to a respectable team in 2011, those problems will have to be solved. But can they?
Well for starters, let's take a look at these issues that hurt Utah basketball this season.
Lack of experience
There is no denying that Utah lacked experience in the 2010 season. When you lose your best player, as we saw with the departure of Andrew Bogut prior to 2006, you take a hit. Especially for a young coaching staff that hasn't been able to recruit the talent best suited for the program.
That was the case for the Utes in 2010. Boylen had to replace his top-four scorers and it showed early. This team struggled mightily to find consistency on both sides of the court. That explains an opening-season loss to Idaho at home. It's not easy rebuilding a program in only your third year and I'd like to think Ute fans accepted that, even if reluctantly.
But we accepted that learning curve on the conditions things would improve as the team, which was inexperienced to start the season, became more and more experienced as the season progressed.
It never happened.
That isn't to say Utah was awful from start to finish. There were surprise wins over Illinois (who now has to justify their loss to the Utes because it's hurting their tournament chances), Utah State, Michigan, LSU and UNLV (twice). But it seemed there was no point in this season where that one win changed the trajectory of the year. They would regress and progress from week to week and ultimately, when it was all said and done, looked no better in March than they did in November.
That hurts. That hurts for a program that was supposed to get stronger month by month. Surely we didn't expect another NCAA Tournament berth, however, I also didn't expect another losing conference record. Or even a losing season.
Maybe that's my fault. Maybe my expectations were a bit too unreasonable at the start of the year. I was, in fact, shocked that the Utes lost to Idaho at home. But I reassured myself and others that we should not panic as a fanbase because, a year earlier, the Utes suffered a humiliating loss at home to start the season (an even worse loss, to a team that isn't even at this level) and we all know how 2009 turned out.
So I still had hope the worst Utah would do in 2010 was the CBI and the best they could do (my hope) was the NIT.
But as the losses piled up and the inexperienced Utes looked just as inexperienced in December and January as they did in November, I realized both postseason tournaments were probably a long shot.
The experience of this team rested in the hands of its senior point guard Luca Drca, senior forward Kim Tillie and junior guard Carlon Brown. I think it's safe to say all three disappointed. Especially Drca, who, as a senior, should have produced far better than he actually did.
Two of those players are done at Utah and it's very possible Brown does not return, either.
Which means 2011's team will be battling a good deal of problems associated with experience, as well. Hopefully they can handle it better.
Losing at home
Never should Utah pile up as many losses at home as they did this season. The Utes were only 9-8 at home - one of their worst home records to date. They weren't much better in conference, losing four there.
But what makes it harder to accept these losses is the fact that they often came against teams Utah should have defeated. Or at least not lost at the consistency they did.
These are the seven losses Utah experienced at home:
- Illinois State
- San Diego State
- Colorado State
- New Mexico
I can accept the losses to San Diego State, New Mexico and BYU, three teams that most certainly will be dancing this season. However, Idaho? Seattle? Illinois State? Colorado State? Even Oklahoma is hard to swallow because this season has been plenty awful for the Sooners.
Seven losses that changed the season. If Utah beats Idaho, Seattle, Oklahoma, Illinois State and Colorado State, they're automatically looking at a 19-win season (8-wins in the conference). Not bad. Not bad, at all, in fact. Certainly good enough for the NIT and a fairly respectable rebuilding year for Jim Boylen.
Instead, the Utes finished with 17-losses and had another losing conference record (their fourth in five seasons).
If Utah is ever going to return to the level of success they saw during the latter part of the Rick Majerus era (I won't even begin to suggest they should be as good as they were at the height of his career here), they need to play better at home. Home games, especially against bad teams that you should beat every year, make or break rebuilding seasons like this.
The same problem faced Ray Giacoletti in 2006 & 2007. The Utes could not consistently win at home against poorer opponents and it ultimately ruined any chance of respectability in a season where expectations were fairly low.
Now this isn't to suggest Boylen is Giacoletti, but he could see the same fate if there isn't a great deal of progress next season at home. The Utes will need to finish more than one game above .500 there if they are going to make any amount of leap from what we've seen this season.
This is probably the most frustrating part of Utah's season. The offense has been abysmal, which is a surprise because Boylen was supposed to bring some offensive firepower back to Utah. It didn't happen, at least this season.
Utah ranks 229th nationally in scoring offense. That's out of 334 teams. They're marginally better in field-goal percentage at 197, but overall, the statistics do not paint a pretty picture. Especially, again, when you realize the offense saw no progression from the start of the season to last night's loss in the conference tournament.
That loss was painful to watch at times because Utah's offense was down right horrible for most of the game.
If 2011 is going to see improvement, they will need to figure out their offensive struggles. If that means Boylen fires his offensive coach, so be it. But whatever they did this season did not work and I suspect it won't work again next year.
Probably one of the most important aspects of any season, regardless of sport. This ties back to the above three because I believe you can't be consistent without progress, solid play at home and at least a manageable offense.
This year, Utah was never consistent. Which isn't the worst thing that could happen, since if they were consistent at losing, 2010 would've sucked a whole helluva lot more than it actually did. However, the lack of consistency from start to finish made it painful enough, especially when I believe this team could have at least been five or six wins better than they actually were.
Utah's longest winning streak of the season was just three games. That happened between Dec. 29th and Jan. 9th. Since that three-game stretch, they produced what could be somewhat considered a winning streak (and that's being generous) only once and it was only for two games.
Outside of that, they generally followed up a win with a loss and never once sustained any type of success from a big win.
They also finished the season losing their final three games. So I guess there is some consistency in that.
For Utah to improve in 2011, again, this is something that will have to change. You can't only string together three straight games once and finish with a respectable record.
Even though I have no idea what the schedule will look like next year, if the Utes can progress at a higher rate, play better at home and improve their offense, lack of consistently shouldn't be a problem. If none of that happens, then I expect the same results in 2011.
For Boylen to succeed next year, it's imperative they make some progress toward the above. I don't expect an NCAA berth or a conference championship - but this is Utah basketball and losing seasons, especially in the Mountain West, won't cut it.
The fear I have is not necessarily that Boylen is a bad coach. I don't think he is. My fear, though, is that he's not good enough to keep Utah at the level of New Mexico under Steve Alford, BYU under Dave Rose, San Diego State under Steve Fisher and UNLV under Lon Kruger.
Those four programs, whether we like it or not, are light-years ahead of Utah right now. That's not going to change next season and might not even change the season after that. These are four programs that have, over the last five years, consistently won, even with the loss of players and the prospects of rebuilding.
We're fooling ourselves if we think this is just a Utah problem. Each of those coaches I listed had to replace talent. New Mexico was supposed to be one of the youngest teams in the conference and were picked behind Utah in the polls. Now they're sitting atop the Mountain West and very likely looking at a three seed (maybe better) in the NCAA Tournament.
BYU, since Rose arrived in 2006, has not seen regression at one point in his coaching career. They lose players, they lose experience and they keep winning. 20-win seasons, conference championships and NCAA berths are now the expectation down in Provo. Even though, in 2005, they were just wrapping up a nine-win season. Utah basketball, at its worst recently, hasn't managed to hit rock bottom like that.
Then you have UNLV and San Diego State, two programs that are not going away. They'll be just as good next season as they were in 2010.
This is what faces Utah and Jim Boylen next year. Programs that have now established themselves as consistent winners. Unfortunately, the Utes haven't been among that group since the early 00s. Now we're just hoping for a winning season and maybe an NIT berth.
That's scary. It's scary because the state and school and its fans have taken pride in the fact Utah basketball, over the years, made itself one of the most successful programs in college basketball history. We're now an afterthought in the Mountain West. In the conference's short history, that has never happened.
Next year could be just as taxing and difficult because while the Utes may improve, so will each team above them.
So that begs the question - how much longer until Utah finally joins their ranks? Should we expect that jump next season? What about in 2012? Is Boylen getting the talent needed to maneuver us up the ladder?
I honestly don't know and I hate that. I hate that we haven't done enough the last three seasons to believe blindly in Boylen's ability. Hell, maybe you do and that's great (I'd love to hear your reasons, try and convince me if you do!) because I do want to believe in Boylen. I want him to succeed. I want him to be the coach to take us to the next level.
But right now, I'm not sure. I'm not sure because it didn't take Lon Kruger or Steve Alford or Dave Rose this long to establish a winning program.
Maybe that mindset is unfair to Boylen because he inherited a dramatically different situation than those three coaches. Yet we're moving into year four here and I think we all concede that while there will be improvement, it might not be dramatic enough to change the situation.
And if Utah is only marginally better next year, where does that put Boylen & the program?
Boylen has earned a chance to prove this season was nothing but a fluke. I hope he proves it was just that and this time next year we're talking about the postseason.
If we're not, then a change might be in order. However, for now, that isn't the case.