Staying the course

Ray Giacoletti is a brave man.

The second-year Runnin’ Ute head coach’s team just completed a 14-15 season, the U’s first losing campaign since freshman forward Shaun Green was three months shy of his second birthday. But instead of listening to fan grumbling and pushing the panic button, Giacoletti is doing what he set out to do when he was confronted with the post-Andrew Bogut era: Stay the course and build from the ground up.

“Obviously you always want better, but in the big picture, looking back on things, we were playing three freshmen, two sophomores and a senior the majority of the minutes,” Giacoletti said. “I think we got better as we went along. (The season) wasn’t what we wanted, but I think it will set the tone for the future.”

The coach points to two close losses in consecutive late-season home games against Colorado State and Air Force as examples of how close they were to finishing the regular season with a flourish, rather than the publicly perceived flop.

“We were really a fine line from getting over the hump,” Giacoletti said. “We got beat on last-second shots; you win those two games and you really finish as strong as we would have liked.”

So what now? At first glance it would appear that the Utes are destined for another down season in 2006-2007. The only seniors next season will be Jonas Langvad and Ricky Johns-neither of whom are expected to shoulder a large load. That leaves the burden resting on the youngsters again, which will be an even larger bunch as Giacoletti is bringing in five new freshmen for next season. But don’t think for a moment that the coach is playing the pessimist.

“We’re still going to be young, but at least we’ll have some people who have been through the wars this past year,” Giacoletti said. “They were in situations where there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for older guys to help them out. They just had to live through it and get better by getting thrown to the wolves, and I think we’ll be better for it in the future.”

With the highly touted recruiting class arriving in the fall-including power forward Daniel Deane, the 2006 Mr. Basketball in the state of Utah-the Utes will receive some much needed depth, something they were almost completely devoid of down the stretch. Deane and Frenchman Kim Tillie, whose athleticism has been branded “off the charts” by Giacoletti, will give the Utes two true options at power forward, something they lacked any of this season.

Also coming in the class is Australian wingman Steven Weigh, 7-foot-2-inch center David Foster and point guard Curtis Eatmon, who Giacoletti says could contribute right away. Another new face to fans, but not to the program, is center Misha Radojevic, who sat out the season with a knee injury. The Utes are optimistic that Radojevic will earn a medical hardship year and will be counted as a junior in eligibility come next season.

Giacoletti promises to open up competition at every starting spot come preseason, leaving open the possibility of a swath of new faces playing significant minutes.

It’s also likely the “old” faces could see time in different positions. Giacoletti has already spoken with sophomore guard Johnnie Bryant about playing more off the ball rather than at his customary point guard position.

And if all goes well with the incoming freshmen, Green will move over to the more natural small forward spot as opposed to the four, where he was stuck out of necessity this season.

Although he is quick to point out that Utah is its own separate entity, Giacoletti agrees that his model for success is similar to the one that Steve Fisher is using at San Diego State. Fisher inherited a bit of a mess when he took the job seven seasons ago, but by building with high-school players, he now has a sustained program. The proof came this season when a veteran Aztec team won both the MWC regular-season and tournament titles.

Giacoletti is hoping to follow that example, taking the methodical approach to success rather than applying some quick fixes.

“We didn’t go out and get a bunch of transfers or junior-college kids. We went out and got five more high school kids,” Giacoletti said. “That foundation is going to sustain itself year in and year out, instead of just throwing it together, having one great year and starting back over again. We’re trying to do it the right way with guys who are going to be in the program for four or five years.”

That might not sound fun to Ute fans that only associate “patient” with hospital rooms, but Giacoletti is convinced that when the hard work pays off, it will have been worth the wait.