I think Utah's success will ultimately come down to whether Coach Boylen can get the most out of his team. I firmly believe that there is enough talent to get Utah at least 17 wins and a possible run at the conference championship, or at least a top-4 finish. But getting to that point will not be easy, especially when it comes to changing the mindset of the players. While the talent is there, how much are they conditioned on losing? Every player on this team has only played for a losing program and that could hinder the growth under Boylen because losing is not something easily shaken.
With that said, Urban Meyer came into Salt Lake City and proved losers can quickly be turned into winners under the right coach. Now I'm not saying Boylen will prove to be Urban Meyer Part II, but if he lives up to his own words, I do see this team greatly improving. However, at least early on, improvement might not be seen in terms of wins and losses, but rather through toughness, discipline and progress. If that happens, the wins will pile up and Utah basketball will return to its rightful place at the top of the Mountain West Conference.
Next season I'm not asking Boylen to come in and automatically turn the Utes into a 25 win team that advances to the Sweet 16. I know that's highly unlikely, but I think it's far more likely that he can turn out a winning season and a possible invite to the NIT. If that's going to happen though, I believe we will need to see the following.
- Defense: The Utes were one of the worst defensive teams in the nation and Boylen's emphasis on this problem will be key to revitalizing the program. For whatever reason, Giacoletti never took defense seriously enough to make it a staple in his game plans and that ultimately hurt Utah far more than it ever could have helped. The Utah basketball team under Ray Giacoletti were essentially the football team under Jim Fassel, a lot of offense and hardly anything on the defensive end. They tried winning using the mentality of outscoring and out shooting the opposition. And while obviously you need to outscore the opponent, that does not mean you should aim to win the game 82 to 81. Look at what UCLA is doing in the NCAA Tournament this year and what Utah did under Rick Majerus. Defense is vital to the Utes success and I believe Boylen understands this.
- Toughness: During the team's first practice earlier this week, Boylen told the Utes they were one of the softest teams in the nation. He was right, and Luke Nevill was a big part of that softness. Giacoletti and his assistants couldn't develop Nevill into a strong, tough center that dominated the paint and forced the opponents out when rebounding. Instead, he was out-toughened by smaller, far more physical players. Boylen has realized this and if he bites as big as he barks, he'll have those kids tough enough to go a round with Mike Tyson.
- Conditioning: The lack of Utah's conditioning shocked Boylen and I believe he'll do what's needed to get these players back in shape. To be so out of shape at the end of the season is a damning statement to the past coaching staff. That's something Majerus would have never allowed and I'm guessing Boylen feels the same. You can't win with out of shape players, especially if they lack discipline, toughness and the defensive mindset.
In reality this is a rebuilding project and I know Boylen realizes this. But it's an undertaking he feels confident in accepting. Results might not appear right away, but I would be shocked if the Utes aren't one of the most well-coached, disciplined teams in the nation by the time March '08 rolls around. I've been a Boylen fan for the past few weeks because I truly believe he will be able to inject the toughness and discipline this program needs to get back to the next level. It also doesn't hurt that this guy lives and breathes basketball and probably has forgotten more about the game than Ray Giacoletti would ever know. He's a tough Xs and Os guy that will succeed if he accomplishes what I outlined above.