To start off with, let’s do a little exercise. I want you to go and scour the internet for me. I want you to find a college basketball program in the western United States that is more historically successful than the University of Utah Runnin’ Utes. Also, UCLA and Arizona are a given. They don’t count.
Go ahead…..i’ll wait right here for you…….
How is it coming? Found anything? Heck, have you found anyone who is even remotely close? I doubt it…….because no such program exists. Stanford maybe, but I doubt you really find anyone else.
This program has been one of the best in the country over its history. In fact, I have seen it ranked as high as #11 all time when it comes to tournament success and appearances. Not bad.
Now, to continue the exercise, look at this year’s schedule of how the team has done. Wow. Quite the contrast. And it’s not just the losing, its losing badly to bad teams. This team is on pace for a historically bad season. I don’t feel like I am being overly negative when I say that there is a real chance that this team won’t win again this year.
And yet, for the first time in nearly a decade, I feel like this team is moving in the right direction.
Let me start at the beginning…….
How did we get to this point?
Rewind to 2004. The big man in the sweater stepped down for a variety of reasons. The guy could win games, but was a slob of a human being.
At this time, I was a freshman on campus. I, like most students, was caught up in Urban Meyer mania. We had just completed the most exciting football season in my memory and the team only looked to be better the next year. Basketball became a background thought as opposed to the dominant program on campus.
When it came time to find a replacement for Majerus, Dr. Chris Hill thought he would catch Lightning in a bottle twice by doing what he did when he found Meyer; find a coach at a no-name school who is up and coming.
Enter Ray Giacoletti from Eastern Washington.
Giac had had a decent season or two with EWU and seemed like a coach on the rise. And the Utes didn’t really need a good coach. They had “Run DMC”, two guys who had been studs as freshman in Andrew Bogut and Justin Hawkins, and Giac had even convinced Mark Jackson to come back to the team. Basically, the team needed someone to give them the ball and let them do their thing.
It worked. In 2005, the Utes returned to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the magical 1998 run. Bogut was the national player of the year.
And then things fell apart…….
Bogut left for the rich contracts of the NBA. Justin Hawkins decided that the grass would be greener at New Mexico State. The C in Run DMC decided that Utah really wasn’t his thing either. You add in Mark Jackson graduating, and things looked bleak going into the 2005-2006 season.
During that season, the D in Run DMC flopped. He had regressed and was not a viable option anymore. The team was forced to rely on freshman Luke Nevill, Lawrence Borha, and Shaun Green, along with Junior college transfer Johnnie Bryant. For the first time in a long time, the team finished with a losing record, 14-15. But hope seemed to be on the horizon as the core of the team was young.
Taking another step backwards…..
The progress that many thought the team would see did not materialize in 2006-2007. It was apparent that Giac was not the right man for this job and he was let go after an 11-19 season. The season baffled fans as the team would beat Washington State and Air Force at home (both teams were ranked in the top 15) but then lose home games to Southern Utah and Albany.
I worked at the “Red Zone” stands during this time selling shirts and other merchandise. It was frustrating as the losses piled up and people would come out of the games wondering what had happened to their team.
A new coach, new enthusiasm, and progress……
Giac was dismissed and Jim Boylen was brought in. Jim reminded many of Rick Majerus with his yelling and enthusiasm while coaching. He seemed to be making strides to as the team improved to 18-15 on the year. They even won a game in the Mountain West tournament and made it to the inaugural College Basketball Invitational tournament, where they also won a game.
2008-2009 brought renewed hope that the program was back. The team finished tied for first in the conference and then went on to win the tournament in Vegas. They achieved a #5 seed in the big dance and things seemed great.
Those freshmen who had gotten a lot of playing time years ago had grown into dominant seniors. Things looked good up on the hill. Luke Nevill had become a dominant low post scorer. Shaun Green was an all around specialist in the mold of Ute favorite Alex Jensen. Lawrence Borha became a lockdown defender and great spot up shooter.
The 2009-2010 team had a lot of hype coming into the year. Though the team had lost five seniors, there were some new and returning faces that made fans believe that this team could make another nice run.
Unfortunately, the guys who had been role players on the prior years teams never developed. Kim Tillie, Luka Drca, and Carlon Brown all remained role players. None of them stepped up to lead.
The newcomers didn’t exactly set the world on fire either. Marshall Henderson proved to be a decent shooter at times. But his attitude and his unwillingness to do what was best for the team bought him a one way ticket out of town (by the way, Henderson transferred to Texas Tech, sat out last year, and has been booted from the team. A real winner if you ask me.)
From there, it has been constant turnover. Guys transfer for various reasons and there is virtually no continuity from season to season. New players come in each year with the hope of playing time, only to transfer after the season is over. It’s an impossible task to build a program. Jim Boylen was fired and Larry Krystkowiak was brought in. With virtually every impact player leaving, Coach K had to bring in a lot of guys on the fly. But it also brought in players who otherwise wouldn’t be playing Division 1 basketball.
So there you have it. That is how we got to this mess. So why in the world, with this seemingly endless loop, am I optimistic about the future?
I believe that there are building blocks on this roster. I have liked what I have seen so far in Anthony Odunsi and Kareem Storey. I have enjoyed seeing Jason Washburn recently find his touch.
Glen Dean and Aaron Dotson are two names to remember. Both have played at other schools and transferred to Utah for a fresh start. If they both stick around past their redshirt years, they will likely be starting next year.
The recruiting class is also the best that Utah has had in quite some time. A variety of needs were addressed and things look to be getting better.
But there is a long way to go. Guys have to realize it’s not going to be smooth sailing for a while. There will be a lot of losing along the way. But it will get better if they stick it out. With the right frame of mind, this program can get back on track. Maybe you are laughing at me as you read this. I guarantee that in five years you won’t be.