Jim Boylen's first year as head coach was interesting, to say the least. While there were a few pretty good highs (Cal, UNLV and New Mexico in the MWC Tournament), there were far more mind-numbing, gut-wrenching, hair-pulling close losses than a fan could handle. But while those losses definitely took its toll on fans' resilience as the season wore on, it could be used as a building tool for future progress. At least, we hope and I think next year will give fans a better indication of what to expect from Boylen long term. However, this is about this season, not what may lie ahead. Which leads to the evaluation of Jim Boylen's first year.
This was an area Utah was terrible in last year. While early in the season they were competitive under Giacoletti, they folded faster than a lawn chair at an obese clinic as the season went on. Fixing this was one of Boylen's first goals when he arrived at Utah and I think it paid off. The Utes were far more competitive this year than they were last season and because of that, they managed to win 18-games, stay close in pretty much every loss and as addressed above, that could pay dividends in the future. For that, Boylen deserves some major praise because he made Utah aggressive again, a mentality that had not been with this team for the past few years.
Yet they still could not get over the hump and that fact cost them some major games, especially a good chance at beating BYU in Salt Lake City -- oh what a painful loss that was. It is a knock on Boylen, but it doesn't diminish the real work he did in this area and because of that, I give him a B.
Utah was bad in defense during Giacoletti's last year and the improvement here is pretty outstanding. They defended the 3-point line far better than last year, weren't dominated as much as last year and pretty much did everything better than last year. The Utes ranked 56th in scoring defense this year and 76th in field goal percentage defense, all improvements over last year's team. This ties in with Utah being competitive, because they would not have been had they not upped their defensive effort. In improving the defense as dramatically as Boylen has, I give him an A- on the season.
This was actually an area Utah really didn't need to improve on, since they were pretty solid here last year. Unfortunately, they actually regressed on offense this season under Boylen, even if the drop-off was minimal. Utah went from 6th in 3 point field goal percentage last year, to 17th this year. Utah's shooting also took a hit, going from 17th in the nation in '07, to 26th this year, while their scoring offense ranked 172nd out of 328 teams, which is about 2 points off last year's total. The Utes also struggled at times with scoring droughts, which was a big reason why they failed to finish close games. The offense at times appeared to be stagnate and never really developed at the level of Utah's defense throughout the season. Hopefully next year the improvement Utah saw on the defensive end can work its way onto the offensive end as well. But based on this season, I've got to give Boylen a C here.
When he took over at Utah, Boylen talked about making the Utes a tougher team. He said they were soft, or in harsher terms, played like a bunch of pussies. And there is no doubt this team is tougher physically than they were last year. They played harder and more physical basketball and that has had a major impact on competitiveness this year. However, physical toughness is only part of what this team needs to become a true force in the Mountain West. The other half, of course, is mental toughness and Utah lacked that the entire year. They had late game meltdowns, went minutes without scoring and at times looked oblivious to what was going on and what needed to happen to either win the game, or get back in it. That means Boylen is only half there and to fully implement this toughness into Utah's attitude, he will need to make them more mentally strong. That means he's not done here and because of that, especially since mental toughness played such a role in their close losses, I can only give him a B-.
This is probably the hardest grade to make, since you don't know exactly what play Boylen may be calling and what detour a player may take on his way to scoring or setting up a play of his own. But I think fundamentally, Utah was a far better Xs and Os team than they were last year. Of course, that's all really subjective, but based on what I saw last year, I feel confident in making that assertion. Yet there were some problems, either with Boylen's play calling, or the execution from the players, especially in close games. I never really felt confident in Utah's ability to set themselves up for a good look at the basket to win the game and most of the time, my doubts were valid, as Utah struggled. It would appear, even out of timeouts, the Utes failed over and over at positioning themselves for a game winning shot, or a game changing play. I don't know if that is Boylen's fault, or if it's all the players, but because of that, I can only give Boylen a B- on this one.
Overall, I think Boylen did good. He didn't blow the doors off the place like some coaches do in their first season, but he also didn't sink like others have in the past. Let's be honest here, he took over a mess and made it respectable. Utah may have failed to really make some national noise, but they at least returned to some respectability, something that had eluded them the past two years prior. For that, he should be lauded and I feel confident that Boylen has set a solid foundation for future growth. I do have some doubts, but my optimism within his leadership trump those doubts and I believe Boylen will address some of these problems, because I suspect he shares the concern. I think he'll improve this team even more next year. And as we've seen between last season and this one, even just a bit of improvement can considerably alter the team. If Utah sees such a change next year, they should be well positioned for no less than an NIT berth.
Overall, I give Boylen a B for his first year. It may sound a bit low, but that's only because I felt going in an A-job would be guiding the Utes to the NCAA Tournament, or even maybe NIT. That didn't happen and because of that, I feel justified in what I gave him.
Agree? Disagree? What grade would you give Boylen for this year?