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November 10, 20092009-2010 Runnin' Utes Preview
Coach: Jim Boylen (3rd year, 42-25)
Last Season: 24-10, 12-4 in MWC (MWC Co-Champions, MWC Tournament Champions, #5 seed in NCAA Tournament). Lost to Arizona in the first round of NCAA Tournament.
Final 2008-09 Rankings: #25 AP
Returning Starters: 3
2009 Rivals.com pre-season ranking: 93
After a breakthrough season that saw the Utes return to the top-25 and the NCAA Tournament, Jim Boylen has plenty of holes to fill. Utah may have only lost two "starters", but lost four seniors that were key contributors in 2008. Carlon Brown is back and must step up his game in order for the Utes to return to the NCAA Tournament. Kim Tillie and Luka Drca are the only seniors on a young but athletic team that has seven new players on the roster. Utah played host to Findlay in their exhibition game, winning 83-70.
"I liked our energy, I liked that we shared the ball, I thought we did a good job following the game plan," Boylen said of the exhibition game against Findlay. "I give my staff credit, we played 14 guys so we got to look at combinations, we got to look at situational stuff with certain guys which I thought was great and I thought they were a quality opponent. They had speed and quickness, they made shots but I thought overall it was a great exhibition game. We were hoping to play 10, 11 guys in that first half which we did and then try to win the game in the second half and that's kind of how it worked out."
Utah lost more than just numbers in the frontcourt with the graduation of Luke Nevill and Shaun Green. Nevill was Utah's leading scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker while Green was a solid all-around player with an extremely high knowledge of the system and basketball IQ. Six players will be competing for playing time at the 4 (power forward) and 5 (center) positions: Kim Tille, David Foster, Jay Watkins, Matt Read, Jason Washburn, and Jeremy Olsen.
One unique aspect of the Utah bigs is that Tillie and the centers can all play either facing up or with their back to the basket, something Boylen loves. "I think it makes us hard to guard and the great thing about those guys is that if you can use them offensively it puts pressure on the defense and then at the defensive end we have that length and shot-blocking which you saw in the exhibition (Utah blocked 8 shots, 5 from the frontcourt). It is hard to score on us when we're active low and blocking shots."
Tillie will start at the 4-spot. Tillie had a double-double in the exhibition opener with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Tillie has always been a great athlete but has not been a great basketball player, especially on the offensive end. Tillie stayed in Utah over the summer to work on his game and improve offensively. According to Boylen, Tillie "is a terrific defender, a high per-minute rebounder, has improved in all offensive areas; playing with his back to the basket and face-up, he's dominant defensively. Last year he was dominant defensively at times, too."
Joining Tillie in the starting lineup is sophomore center David Foster. Foster returned from an LDS Church mission earlier this year and has been slowly working back into game shape. Foster scored 8 points and pulled down 7 rebounds in 16 minutes Saturday. Foster has great size with his 7-foot-3, 255 pound frame and is a solid defender and rebounder who is rounding into form on the offensive end. To this point, Foster has only shown a good right hook from the left block and needs to develop better offensive skills in the post. "He's ahead of where I thought he would be," Boylen said. "He is picking up the system very quickly. He's able to take things from video sessions and practice and take them to the game, which is hard for big guys. He's in great shape and I'm really happy with where he is at."
Jason Washburn is coming off a redshirt year and is Foster's backup. Washburn had a great debut against Findlay, blocking 4 shots and altering many more. Washburn still needs to improve his size, strength, and toughness but is an exciting player that is already one of the better running bigs in the country. Washburn showed off those skills in the exhibition game, running down a guard on a break to alter a lay-up before sprinting out ahead of the pack for a transition dunk. Washburn has also showed good range in practices, consistently knocking down 15-18 foot jumpers and even hitting some three-point shots.
The last 5-man on the roster is freshman Jeremy Olsen, who will likely redshirt this season. Olsen is offensively skilled and getting better defensively but might not be physically ready to play this season. "He has great hands," Boylen said. "He has the ability to score the ball, seems to always be in the right position for drop-offs and just has a feel to play the game which I love. We like big guys and he's a big guy for the future for sure."
Backing up Tillie at the 4-spot are JC transfers Matt Read and Jay Watkins. Watkins was penciled in to play a lot of minutes but has an injury that will keep him out for the first month of the season. "He was a guy that was going to be in that 4 position with his athleticism and he can also play some 3," Boylen said of Watkins. "I think we miss his versatility a little bit, we miss his athleticism and rebounding. He also has a very high basketball IQ, he picked up things very quickly. We'll have to wait and see when we get him back."
Read might be best described as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Read can rebound, shoot, and defend but has not been consistent in practices. "[Read] and Kim have tough shoes to fill with Shaun Green being gone but together they are doing a good job of it," Boylen said. "We're rebounding the ball better, they're making better decisions and they are both shooting the ball better every day from the spacing spots. I'm encouraged by that 4 position."
Gone are 2008 catalysts Tyler Kepkay and Lawrence Borha. Kepkay was a sparkplug off the bench while Borha was Utah's second leading scorer and a terrific perimeter defender. Utah is extremely young in the backcourt. Boylen wants his team to get out and run, pushing the ball up the court, and that all starts with his very young backcourt making good decisions and sharing the ball. The good news for the Utes is that the depth and athleticism has improved which should allow a more high-tempo offense.
"I think we have more depth and we can play 10, 11 guys," Boylen said. "We have 10 fouls at every position and we can run guys in and out and push the ball. We've got multiple ball handlers and multiple decision makers. We're growing together. We're not there yet but we're learning how to play with each other. I think that is the key James, how quickly we can learn to play with each other and regain some of the chemistry we had last year and grow in the system."
Brown is going to be the key for the Utes this season. A terrific athlete who is very skilled around the basket and creating off the dribble, Brown has been working on becoming a complete player and team leader. Brown led the Utes in assists a season ago and his ability to get to the rim led not only to highlight dunks, but many open shots for teammates. To become a more complete player, Brown has really been working on his pull-up jump shot as well as his three-point shot. Brown hit 7 of 11 shots in the exhibition game en route to 17 points. "Carlon has improved his shooting and improved his defense," Boylen said. "What I'm hoping for him is to become a complete player. He can get to the basket, drive, pitch, and create, and if he can keep improving in other areas the sky is the limit for him."
Drca is back for his senior season and has developed into a player Boylen absolutely loves and says Drca embodies the program. "Drca is kind of what I envision this program to be: terrific student, tough guy, understands the game, can play with the ball, can play off the ball, makes other people better, terrific defensively and takes pride in his defense, and is ready for a big-time senior year." Drca has also evolved into a leader on the court and has played a key role in bringing the young players up to speed on the playbook and what they need to be doing on and off the court. Drca's problem a season ago was turnovers, something he has been working on improving upon. Drca led the Utes in the exhibition game with seven assists while turning the ball over twice.
Starting alongside Brown and Drca will be true freshman Marshall Henderson. Henderson is a shooter who is being molded into a facilitator. Henderson has embraced the challenge of turning into a more traditional point guard, dishing out a pair of assists Saturday night including a nifty pass to Foster for a dunk. Henderson is a passionate player who is not shy about letting them show and will quickly become a fan favorite with his shooting and enthusiasm. Henderson still needs to work on his defense, something Boylen says is improving. "Henderson is a shot maker who understands how to play the game. He already has chemistry with Drca and Brown, they play well together and I expect him to be our starter as we go into our first real game. Again, a good feel for the game, can score in many different ways and is improving defensively every day which is what freshmen need to do."
Shawn Glover has the most potential of all the Runnin' Utes. Glover is a very skilled player who is so smooth that sometimes it appears he is not trying at all. Glover has a nose for the ball as a rebounder and a silky-smooth jump shot that he can hit either pulling up from 12-15 feet or spotting up from three. His defense is improving and his length (6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) and quick hands gives him the potential to be an outstanding perimeter defender. Glover had two steals and four rebounds in 15 minutes in the exhibition opener. Simply put, Glover can be as good as he wants to be. "Glover has length and is very skilled offensively," Boylen said. "He can play off the bounce, he can make threes, he shot over 50% from three in practices, in scrimmage games and in all of our contact drills. He has to get tougher and more physical and get to understand the defense. If he does that he is going to be just fine. I'm excited about his growth already and he'll keep growing."
Jace Tavita comes off the bench to provide the Utes with a solid defender and another ball handler. Tavita has not developed into much of a scoring threat, but has the ability to drive and kick and is a solid free throw shooter. Tavita's biggest asset is coming off the bench to run the second unit and as a perimeter defender.
Jordan Cyphers is another shooter who needs to improve his defense and playing within the system. Cyphers is not afraid to shoot and will sometimes take shots that do not fit within Boylen's structure. Cyphers has improved his footwork on the defensive end but still has work to do, especially when it comes to getting his hands in passing lanes and being able to do more than just stay in front of his man.
Ricky Shoff is a hard worker who is a decent defender, but has a toughness and a tenacity that Boylen and the staff loves. "Tough kid, competitive, very happy with his development," Boylen said. "He has improved his shooting and has improved his skill level."
Chris Hines had his development slowed a year ago by a severe ankle injury and is still trying to find his way in the system. Hines is a bulldog and will not back away from anyone. Hines is a rock solid defender but needs to work on his offensive skills. He is a decent shooter but has some problems running the offense and can play a little out of control at times.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Henderson would seem to be the easy choice with his role as a starter, but Glover has the potential to be the key between a good and a great season. Glover's skills offensively and his length on the defensive end will not only provide the Utes with great depth behind Brown but could push them from a nice team to a conference contender in what is a rebuilding year.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Brown will elevate his game and take the next step to become an all-conference player. With his improved shooting and defense, the only thing that will hold Brown back is himself.
STRONGEST AREA: Depth. The Utes will be Runnin' again, and depth is the biggest key. Boylen wanted to get out and run a year ago but injuries and a lack of depth prevented the Utes from really pushing the ball for a full 40 minutes. To speed the process along, Boylen has been working his kids hard and emphasizing conditioning to take advantage of that depth. "I think it makes our depth more powerful when everyone is in great shape," Boylen said. "I also think that we're at altitude and we want to play fast, we want to be a running team, and we can't do those things unless we're in great shape. I think it is a sign of toughness, I think it is a sign of competitiveness. We were down at halftime seven times last year and came back and won and I think conditioning had a big part in that."
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Without a question, it is experience. Seven new players, ten that have never played for Utah before, adds up to a team that will go through their share of growing pains. Losing Watkins really hurt as he will not have the chance to get up to speed early on with the rest of the guys. "Our weakness is that we are not as skilled in the system as last year," Boylen said. "Shaun Green was a very skilled guy in the system and understood it, Luke Nevill was skilled and understood it, Kepkay - skilled, understood it, Borha - skilled, understood it. You lose those four guys and we have guys stepping into those roles but they haven't been in the system for 24, 28 months like those guys had been so that's what we've got to do, we've got to make them more skilled in the system."
The potential and athleticism is there for the Utes to put together another solid season, though another NCAA berth without winning the MWC tournament might be too much to ask. With a great coaching staff the drop-off in experience will not pull the Utes too far down from the other top teams in the conference. 18 wins and a strong showing in the conference tournament would be a reasonable goal even with a tough schedule that includes teams such as Michigan, Oklahoma, Illinois, and LSU.