Second disappointing season has program reeling

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

For U men’s basketball fans, there is only one word that comes to mind when describing the Runnin’ Utes’ latest season: disappointing.

Some would say that it is former coach Ray Giacoletti’s fault, who resigned with two weeks left in the season. Others insist that it was just a lack of emotion. One thing is certain, though: The potential for greatness was definitely there.

“Those guys weren’t too far away from being pretty darn good,” Giacoletti said. “Fix a few things here and a few things there and we could have made a run.”

The Runnin’ Utes handled the nationally ranked Washington State Cougars early in the season at the Huntsman Center, 69-55. Now, the Cougars are a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Likewise, Virginia came to Salt Lake City in late December and couldn’t find an answer for anything the Utes were doing, eventually losing 94-70. The Cavaliers finished their season ranked No. 24 and earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament.

Again during Mountain West Conference play, Utah was able to shut down then-No. 13 Air Force’s potent offense, and the result was an 85-79 upset victory. The win snapped the Falcons’ 13-game win streak and sent their season into a downward spiral.

With all of these quality wins, the potential was definitely there, but consistency certainly wasn’t. They may have beaten a few nationally ranked teams, but the Utes shot themselves in the foot with a plethora of road losses against the likes of Rhode Island, Central Florida and Northwestern.

“We never had trouble getting up for games against the better teams like Washington State, but when we played teams like Southern Utah and Albany, we knew we were supposed to win and just didn’t execute well enough,” Utah forward Shaun Green said. “That just goes to show you how young we were.”

Those upsets, coupled with a few ego-smashing defeats, sent the Utes on their way to their worst season of basketball since the 1973-1974 season.

What was the reason for the Utes’ struggles? There is an old adage that says “defense wins championships,” and it couldn’t hold more truth for the Utes — only for them, it was a lack of defense that kept them from contention.

Utah ranked near the bottom of the nation in field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot 50 percent against them. And that’s not all. The Runnin’ Utes also allowed opponents to shoot a blistering 46.3 percent from behind the arc.

“You’ve got to have something to hang your hat on,” Giacoletti said. “Defense and rebounding are things that you should be able to control, and we just didn’t get it done. That led to us getting beaten by teams that we shouldn’t have.”

The Utes began their season with three consecutive losses to lowly Southern Utah, Santa Clara and Colorado. Then they bounced back with three straight wins against Rice, Weber State and Washington State. The streak put the Utes at an even .500 (3-3), the best winning percentage they would see all year.

The Utes did everything they could to hang with Utah State in Logan the following week, but the hostile environment, combined with hot Aggie shooting, sent the Utes home with another loss.

During the next month, the Utes would lose eight of their 10 games — including four in conference play — which all but ended Utah’s hope of participating in postseason play.

Still, the Runnin’ Utes had plenty left in the tank when No. 13 Air Force came to town. The Utes then followed that victory with another win over Wyoming. The rest of the conference season was a blur, with the Utes losing nearly all of their road games and winning most of the games played in the Huntsman Center.

“What it boils down to is confidence,” Green said. “We were a really young team this year and lost a few games early in the season. That killed our confidence, and we never really recovered from that.”

With merely two games left, Giacoletti announced that he would be stepping down after the end of the season. Whether by the resignation or some other force, the Utes would lose their next game to BYU then duck out of the conference tournament early with a first-round loss to UNLV.

Since the season ended last Thursday, there has been much speculation as to who will fill the void left by Giacoletti. The answer is uncertain, but whoever steps in will inherit a wide breadth of talent at a variety of different positions.

“If a couple of guys grow up over the summer or if they bring some new talent to help out around the perimeter, they have a chance to be great next season,” Giacoletti said. “I wish them the best of luck.”