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Utah Utes basketball: Move comes at a terrific time for hoops program

SALT LAKE CITY — For University of Utah basketball coach Jim Boylen, Thursday's announcement of Utah's inclusion into the Pac-10 Conference couldn't have come at a better time.

That's because this is the week that coaches are allowed to start recruiting for the 2012-13 season, when the Utes will be welcoming as many as five new players into the program.

"The timing couldn't be better," said Boylen. "We'll go into the first year of the Pac-10 with a veteran team and be able to establish ourselves. Then we have five 2012 scholarships to recruit to for the next year and a half and sell the fact that we're in the Pac-10 and they will play all four years in the Pac-10. I don't know how it could have worked out any better for us."

Besides the fortunate timing, Boylen said he was "jacked up" for the opportunity to play in the Pac-10. He said there are many advantages to the new conference affiliation.

"More exposure, more NCAA tournament teams, more draft picks, bigger platform to recruit from ... it's just a bigger stage to showcase our athletes," he said. "It's huge for the state of Utah, it's huge for our program."

Boylen points out that his team has already recruited in northern and southern California and said his "recruiting footprint" wouldn't change. Also, the Utes have played several Pac-10 schools in his three years here, with wins over Cal on the road and Oregon at home and close losses to Washington and Oregon on the road and a three-point loss to Cal at home.

Even though the Utes have experienced a couple of down years in the past three years, Boylen feels his team will be able to compete well in the Pac-12.

"I think it actually works out really well for our program," he said. "We won't have that 'but' anymore from those kids out West — 'but you're not in the Pac-10.' That's been a hard thing to overcome. Now we can move on from that."

In the Pac-12, the Utes will be going up against some of college basketball's biggest names. None is bigger than UCLA, which has won more NCAA titles than any other school. Then there's Arizona, which had its 25-year streak of NCAA appearances snapped last season.

"There's respect on our end, but there's not a lot of fear," he said. "We've played the Pac-10, we've played the Big 12, we've played the Big Ten since I've been the head coach and we've had success. We're expecting to compete and be successful."

The Pac-10 plays its postseason tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It started a postseason tourney in 1987 but dropped it after four years before restoring it in 2002. Since 2005, all 10 teams have been eligible, with the top six teams receiving a first-round bye.

Utah would have the largest basketball arena in its new league with a capacity of 15,000. Of the league's current schools, Arizona is the largest at 14,545, followed by Arizona State at 14,198. Stanford has the smallest arena at 7,233.

Interim Utah women's basketball coach Anthony Levrets is also excited about his team having the chance to compete in the Pac-10. He grew up in Oregon and his wife played basketball for Washington State, so he is very familiar with the Pac-10.

"We understand how that region feels about the Pac-10 and the recruiting doors that will open up for us," he said. "We've really enjoyed being in the Mountain West Conference, where the competition is incredible. We hate leaving some of those schools behind, but are excited about exploring new rivalries and new opportunities."

Levrets points out that over the last 10 years, Utah is second behind only Stanford for the best RPI in the West.

"Our goal will be to see how good we can be there," he said. "Our record over the past few years has been very good. As we move forward we'll see how good we are."

The Utah women, who have a 49-46 overall record against Pac-10 schools, should fit into the league just fine but might find it difficult to win championships.

That's because Stanford is one of the premier basketball programs in the nation every year and has dominated the Pac-10 for more than two decades. The Cardinal women have won or shared 18 of the last 23 league titles, including nine in a row.

Arizona State is the next-best program with seven top-three finishes in the past eight years.

"Stanford is clearly in a league of their own," Levrets said. "Obviously, they're right at the top nationally. Their standard of excellence will be a great model to try to achieve."