Now that his first year is behind him, coach Jim Boylen is ready for bigger and better things for the Utah basketball program in Year 2.
Boylen's first season was decent, with a winning record of 18-15 and a trip to a postseason tournament (College Basketball Invitational), where the Utes defeated UTEP before losing to Tulsa. More than anything, Boylen was proud of the much-improved toughness and defensive mentality the team showed last year.
With an ambitious schedule and seven of their top eight scorers back, the Utes are looking to challenge for the Mountain West Conference title this year.
"I think we have a team that can compete for a championship," Boylen said. "But there are a few things we need to do, like defend, rebound and come together as a group."
The Utes, who were picked to finish fourth in the MWC preseason media poll, are led by seniors Luke Nevill, Shawn Green, Lawrence Borha and Tyler Kepkay. Nevill and Green have been three-year starters, Borha has started for two seasons and Kepkay started 26 games last year.
This season, Boylen plans to start juniors Kim Tillie and Luka Drca and sophomore Carlon Brown along with Nevill and Borha and bring Green and Kepkay off the bench.
The second-year Ute coach said he wants more athleticism in the starting lineup and more firepower off the bench and that it makes little difference who starts, pointing out that Kepkay and Green had the most minutes in the Utes' opening exhibition win last week. Sophomore Morgan Grim is also expected to play important minutes off the bench at both the 4 and 5 positions.
The Utes have added five newcomers to the program, but only two are expected to play.
Jace Tavita, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder from Brighton High School, can play both the point and off-guard positions, while Jordan Cyphers is a 6-4 shooting guard from Wichita, Kan., who will be expected to add scoring off the bench.
The other three freshmen — 7-foot Jason Washburn out of Battle Creek, Mich.; 6-7 Josh Sharp from Lone Peak HS, and Chris Hines out of Houston, Texas — will redshirt this season. Sharp is expected to leave on an LDS mission after the season, while Hines has been hobbled by an ankle injury for more than two months.
"Our depth has improved and our size and speed is better than it was," said Boylen, who has been stressing the Utes' transition game all fall. With better depth and faster players, Boylen wants to make the Utes more of a running team.
The Utes will miss the scoring of Johnnie Bryant, the only key player the Utes lost from last year. Bryant averaged 14.2 points off the bench and sank 89 3-pointers, the second-most in school history for a season.
Boylen hopes Kepkay, Green and Borha can each hit one more 3-pointer a game behind the longer 3-point line and that Cyphers can also contribute off the bench.
"We need people to step up," Boylen said. "That's a void we have to fill."
Boylen is also expecting more from his 7-foot-2 center Nevill, who has been inconsistent through much of his career.
"He's got to rebound," Boylen said. "We know he can score. He's got to rebound out of his area, get our break started and also get offensive rebounds and go to the line more."
Nevill has averaged 7.0 rebounds for his career and Boylen would like to see his total improve to closer to 9 per game this year.
The Utes open their regular season Saturday afternoon against Southwest Baptist at 2 p.m. at the Huntsman Center and will play three more games the following week in the Glen Wilkes Classic, including one Tuesday night against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Boylen is continuing to upgrade his schedule, and the Utes' home slate is arguably the best in school history with No. 11 Gonzaga coming to town on Dec. 31, along with Oregon (Dec. 3), California (Dec. 10) and LSU (Jan. 6). Road games include No. 13 Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri State and Utah State.
2008-09 UTAH MEN'S SCHEDULE
Nov. 15 — SOUTHWEST BAPTIST 2 p.m.
Nov. 18 — WISCONSIN-GREEN BAY 7 p.m.
Nov. 21 — Mississippi @ Daytona Beach, Fla. 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 — Morgan State @Daytona Beach, Fla. 2:15 p.m.
Nov. 28 — at Missouri State 6 p.m.
Dec. 3 — OREGON (The mtn.) 7 p.m.
Dec. 6 — at Idaho State 7 p.m.
Dec. 10 — CALIFORNIA (The mtn.) 7 p.m.
Dec. 13 — at Oklahoma (ESPN2) 2 p.m.
Dec. 20 — WEBER STATE (The mtn.) 4 p.m.
Dec. 22 — at Utah State 7 p.m.
Dec. 27 — at UC Irvine 8 p.m.
Dec. 31 — GONZAGA (CBS C) 6 p.m.
Jan. 3 — WYOMING 2 p.m.
Jan. 6 — LSU (The mtn.) 7 p.m.
Jan. 10 — at San Diego State (Versus) 2 p.m.
Jan. 14 — at Air Force (The mtn.) 8 p.m.
Jan. 17 — COLORADO STATE (The mtn.) 1 p.m.
Jan. 24 — at UNLV (Versus) 1 p.m.
Jan. 27 — BYU (The mtn.) 8 p.m.
Jan. 31 — NEW MEXICO (The mtn.) 1:30 p.m.
Feb. 4 — at TCU (The mtn.) 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 7 — at Wyoming (The mtn.) 2 p.m.
Feb. 11 — SAN DIEGO STATE (The mtn.) 8 p.m.
Feb. 14 — AIR FORCE (The mtn.) 2 p.m.
Feb. 18 — at Colorado State (The mtn.) 6 p.m.
Feb. 25 — UNLV (The mtn.) 8 p.m.
Feb. 28 — at BYU (CBS C) 3 p.m.
March 3 — at New Mexico (The mtn.) 7 p.m.
March 7 — TCU (The mtn.) 4 p.m.
March 10-14 — MWC Tournament in Las Vegas (The mtn.)
UTE HOOPS 2008-09
Returning starters (name, position, year, ppg, rpg): Luke Nevill, C, Sr, 15.2 ppg 6.7 rpg; Lawrence Borha, G, Sr. 7.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg; Shawn Green, F, Sr. 7.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg; Luka Drca, G, Jr. 5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg; Carlon Brown, G, So. 4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg.
Other top returnees: Tyler Kepkay, G, Sr, 7.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg; Kim Tillie, F, Jr, 5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg.
Key newcomers (name, position): Jordan Cyphers, G; Jace Tavita, G.
Non-conference games of note: Mississippi, Nov. 21; Oregon, Dec. 3; Cal, Dec. 10; at Oklahoma, Dec. 13; Gonzaga, Dec. 31; LSU, Jan. 6.
Key to success: Center Luke Nevill needs to improve his rebounding and defense. Tyler Kepkay must pick up the scoring slack left by departed Johnnie Bryant. Shawn Green will be counted on as a team leader and to produce in his new role off the bench.
Predicted MWC finish (media): 4th.
2007-08 record: 18-15 overall, 6-10 Mountain West