Could the Mountain West Conference be the best conference on the west coast this season? With the Pac 10 lacking the quality of previous seasons, the senior-laden Mountain West is ready to emerge as the top non-BCS conference this season, and potentially the best conference in the west. One team that believes they can challenge for the MWC championship is the Utah Utes. The Utes return their entire starting five, and will have the comfort of being in their second season under Jim Boylen. Utah has scheduled like it can be an elite team, as this season they will take on Oregon, Cal, LSU, Utah St., Oklahoma, and Gonzaga. There is no denying that with the depth and experience this team will have, that Utah could be back on its way to the NCAA Tournament.
Last Season's Results: While Utah was able to have its first above five hundred season (18-15) in two years, last season was far from a success. In his first season as head coach, Jim Boleyn could only lead the Utes to a one game improvement in conference play from the previous season. The other issue for the Utes was that they made boneheaded decisions at the most important part of games. Finally, the Utes were plagued by foul trouble to key contributors, as their opponents shot 146 more free-throws throughout the season. This combination of a rookie head coach and poor decision making saw them lose 11 games by 8 points or less. One of these crushing defeats was a 61-59 loss to GU at the MAC. Had it not been for a career high 26 points from Matt Bouldin, the Utes very easily could have escaped from Spokane with a terrific victory. In Luke Nevill, Utah has an NBA caliber big man, that emerged as the top scorer for Boleyn last season.
New Faces: Jim Boleyn did a terrific job recruiting, as he brought in 5 new faces for this season. Although he was not the most heralded of the incoming recruits, it appears that Jordan Cyphers it the most likely to see immediate playing time. Cyhpers chose Utah over offers from Michigan and Illinois, and the Utes are counting on the 6'4 SG to contribute immediately on the offensive end. Cyphers is a great athlete who can be deadly from behind the 3 point line. Another freshman who could crack the rotation is Jace Tavita. Tavita, a native of Brighton, Utah, was not eligible until the beginning of October because of some transcript issues, could see immediate playing time at both PG and SG. The most heralded member of the class coming out of high school is Jason Washburn. The 6'11 big man was recruited by Vanderbilt, Indiana, and LSU, but chose to play for Utah. While there is no denying the potential that Washburn has, he may be a season or two away from contributing at this level. However, Washburn will be a force for the MWC to deal with once he adds some strength to his frame. Josh Sharp and Chris Hines round out the class, and while neither will see much time this season, both will be solid contributors for Jim Boleyn down the road.
Players to Watch: With 8 of the top 9 scorers returning from last season team, including the entire starting 5, there is no shortage of key contributors for Utah this season. Leading the way for the Utes is 7'2 Luke Nevill. The highly skilled big man is coming off a season that saw him average 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds. Nevill has the talent to be first round pick in the NBA draft next season, but he most become a more dominating player for Utah to reach its potential. While Nevill was able to put up good stats throughout the season, it wasn't until the final five games that he began to dominate. If Nevill can begin this season the way he finished last year, then Utah could have one of the top big men in the entire country. One player who will be relied upon heavily this season is Tyler Kepkay. Kepkay came to Utah from the College of Eastern Utah, where he was the leading JC scorer in the entire country. Although Kepkay demonstrated this scoring ability at the beginning of the season, including a 23 point performance against Oregon, he lost his confidence throughout the season. This was highlighted by Kepkay being shutout in two of the final five games. He must improve on his 7.5 points per game, and regain the confidence he had before last season for Utah to be an NCAA Tournament team. Another player who must find some form of consistency is Shaun Green. Gonzaga fans will remember Green, as he hit 5 three pointers last season against the Zags. However, Green only managed to score in double figures on four other occasions after the game against Gonzaga. His scoring dipped from 11.1 points his sophomore season to 7.6 points his junior season. The 6'8 PF has good size for his position, and can shoot from anywhere on the court. If Green can return to his junior year form, it would provide the team with a solid second scoring option.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: I would like to introduce everyone to the definition of a trap game. With a huge game at the University of Tennessee looming, will the Zags give Utah the full attention they deserve? Salt Lake City is not an easy place for any opponent to win, and Utah will certainly believe they can win this game after the two point defeat last season. With 8 of the top 9 players from last year returning, and an abundance of senior leadership, Utah will be confident they can defeat any team this season. A win against Gonzaga could provide the Utes with the type of victory that catches the attention of the selection committee, and could help the Utes snag an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
What We are Watching for: The highlight of this game will be the matchup between Josh Heytvelt and Luke Nevill. After playing Michigan St., Arizona, and UConn, we should know whether Josh has returned to his elite form. Josh will need to be at his best for this game, as Nevill is a highly skilled big man, who can score in a variety of ways. Nevill is one of the rare big men who is as talented as Josh on the offensive end, and he will make Josh play hard on both ends of the court. I will also be interested to see how GU handles having to play a half-court game. The past couple of season have seen the Zags struggle when they are forced to rely on the half-court game to score baskets If the Zags can execute effectively in the half-court then they should be able to win this game, but if they get flustered and force up quick shots, then this is an upset waiting to happen.