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Five Questions: Utah Utes

The Pape Jam is coming up Saturday, as Oregon takes on a pretty good Utah team at the Rose Garden.  To help answer our questions, Sean, from the excellent Utah blog Block U, has joined us to answer our questions.  He will also post my answers to his questions sometime today.  Here we go:

Dave:   Utah is 5-2, but in their only two games against decent opponents, Washington and Santa Clara, they have been unable to pull out a victory.  I know that the schedule toughens up with Oregon, Cal, and Gonzaga coming up soon, but what is your take on the way this team is playing thus far?

Block U:  The schedule does toughen up and Utah has struggled in its two early tests against Washington and Santa Clara. I think, though, most fans were upbeat after the loss to the Huskies, as that was a road game against a team that hadn't lost to an out of conference opponent at home in a very long time. Utah played competitive, fought back from being down double digits and held a slight lead in the final minutes of the game. However, mistakes were made and the Utes eventually fell. The loss hurt, but if this had been last year's team, they probably would've been blown off the floor early. As for that Santa Clara game, I don't know what to think of that, because Utah played pretty poor from start to finish. Luckily, that appears to be an anomaly so far and not the trend -- something that plagued Utah last year. I would compare the Santa Clara loss to Oregon's St. Mary's loss, in the sense that they came against two decent WCC teams.

Utah's play this year has been pretty good for the most part. Good because I think many Ute fans realize this is a rebuilding project, as Giacoletti didn't recruit nearly as well as many of us had hoped and left the team with a dearth of talent outside the starting five. But Utah is a different team than they were last year, as this time last season they were 3-4 and already had losses to Southern Utah, Santa Clara, Colorado and Utah State -- all teams the Utes should have easily beat last year.

Dave:  Jim Boylen, Michigan State's former top assistant, is in his first season as Utah head coach.  After the debaccle that was Ray Giacolletti, how has the fan base received Boylen?

The fans love Boylen. He came here and instantly endeared himself to the community and the Utah fans. That's something Ray Giacoletti failed to do, as he never went to the football games (Boylen went to many home football games for the Utes this year, urging students to get to basketball games), was rarely seen out in the community and pretty much was in hibernation from March to about October. Boylen is different, though, and it doesn't hurt that he sounds a lot like Majerus, swearing and all. I think Utah fans love when a coach is tough and isn't afraid to chew a player out. That's probably why Rick Majerus and Jerry Sloan became so popular here. But beyond that, Boylen appears to really know how to coach and that's what Utah fans have been thirsting for ever since Majerus resigned.  

Dave:  Who are the major weapons that Utah has on offense?  What little I know about the Utes this season tells me that Johnnie Bryant and Luke Nevill are the main scoring threats.  How do they play, and are there any other offensive threats that we need to focus on?

Block U:  If Luke Nevill plays to his potential, which has been an issue so far this season, he will be Utah's biggest scoring threat. However, at times, he plays way too soft and doesn't have the forcefulness to dominate inside. Boylen has been on his ass because of that and against Utah State, he finally looked a bit better. For Utah to win, he will need to rule the inside game, because that's where the Utes have their biggest advantage.

As for Bryant, he is a scoring threat, but I think the Ducks will also have to look out for Kim Tillie, who had 18 points against Utah State, and Lawrence Borha, who has proven to be an explosive scorer at times. He had 24 points in Utah's victory over UC Irvine last Saturday. Outside of those players, Shaun Green has the ability to shoot from outside and if he gets hot, he'll give the Ducks' defense fits.

Dave:  What is the style of the current Utah team both defensively (man, zone, etc) and offensively (post up, perimeter, slow down, run and gun)?

Block U:  I think Boylen is still trying to find his way on both sides of the ball. Like in Wednesday's victory over Utah State, the Utes ran a 3-man weave on offense, which I haven't seem from Utah ever. Boylen loves to run, but also emphasizes slowing it down on defense. The influence of Tom Izzo and Jud Heathcote clearly defines Boylen as a coach and the philosophies he brings to the hardwood. On the defensive end, it appears Boylen is more a zone guy instead of a man-to-man one.

Dave:  It may not be that well known nationally, but Utah is one of the most successful programs in NCAA history (8th or 9th in all time wins, I believe), what are the year to year expectations for the Ute basketball team?

Block U:  The expectations of this program are pretty high, which is why Ray Giacoletti can lead Utah to the Sweet 16 in his first year and get fired in year three. The Utes don't like to fool around with losing and since the program doesn't have a history of it, they won't. Under Majerus, expectations were probably some of the highest in the nation. Ute fans expected to dominate the WAC and then the Mountain West and not only make the NCAA Tournament, but make deep tournament runs, as well. Now, obviously, expectations are a bit drawn back. I think we expect this program to return to the level it was in the 90s, but understand that it will take time. This year, most are hoping for a winning record, a winning conference record and a postseason berth, even if it's the NIT. The sooner Utah becomes a consistent top-25 and NCAA Tournament team, the better.

Thanks to Sean for joining us.  Here's to a good game on Saturday.