Men’s Hoops: Utes look to sink Lobos

By and

When talking about where the Runnin’ Utes are heading into the MWC Tournament, head coach Jim Boylen was quick to compare his team to an iceberg.

“A lot of our mass is under the surface, and that’s what happens when you don’t win,” Boylen said. “How do you quantify what you’ve done-where you’re going? And that’s how I feel.”The other thing about icebergs is that throughout history they’ve been known to be responsible for sinking some pretty big ships, which is exactly what the Utes have in mind this weekend.

First up for the Utes will be a team they’ve already lost to twice this season. The first time, Utah lost in overtime at The Pit. The second was a one-point loss at the Huntsman Center. The fact that Utah was in both games every step of the way speaks to how confident the Utes are that they can hang with the Lobos. Conversely, the fact that mental errors by Utah down the stretch had a hand in both losses brings attention to the Utes’ biggest problem this season: finishing games.

“My most repeated thing in our huddle in the last 10 minutes has been, ‘Guys, we’ve been here before,'” Boylen said.It seems like every Utah loss has had a headlining mistake to accompany it.

Examples include Tyler Kepkay’s layup against New Mexico when the Utes needed a 3-pointer to tie and Utah running too much time off the clock in a loss to BYU and Luka Drca trying to slip the ball to Luke Nevill but instead throwing it out of bounds in Provo. Utah has also had missed layups, missed free throws and even a strip of Luke Nevill that have all led to the nine losses Utah compiled through MWC play this season.

“I think you’re always worried about the mind set of your team in a loss if you continue to lose games where you have control of the game, or you had the lead,” Boylen said.

Fortunately for the Utes, they can make all those faux pas fade as they prepare to enter a new opportunity.

“I’m disappointed in our 7-9 league performance but excited about the tournament-excited to have, kind of, our ‘third season’ of basketball,” Boylen said.

To get anything other than a one-game season come Thursday, the Utes draw the tough assignment of shutting down one of the best players in the Mountain West Conference.

On Monday, New Mexico’s J.R. Giddens was named co-MWC Player of the Year. Lending the most clout to Giddens’ MVP season is the fact that he led the conference in points (18.3) and rebounds (8.3). Beside those two stats, Boylen feels Giddens had all the intangibles this season.

“I said to my staff, ‘I think he plays with the most force,'” Boylen said. “From his plays to the rim to his drives to his rebounding. He’s an underrated defender. I think he’s a very good defender. He’s just a good player.”

At 6-foot-5 and 215 lbs., Giddens also happens to be the type of player Utah has had the most problems defending this year.”There’s no hiding that we struggle with the 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-7 swing man,” Boylen said.

Making Thursday night’s matchup that much more daunting for the Utes is the fact that New Mexico has won eight of its last nine and is playing about as well as anyone in the MWC right now. For that reason, the Lobos are considered a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

But therein lies one of three potential chinks New Mexico might have waiting in its armor.First of all, Utah has nothing to play for but pride and a chance to gain some steam heading into next season. All the pressure lies on New Mexico to keep its NCAA hopes alive.

Second, whether you’re talking about anyone from BYU down to Colorado State, beating a conference opponent three times in one season is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

Last, Utah had chances to beat New Mexico both on the road and at home, but one could argue that Utah did more to beat itself than New Mexico did to beat the Utes. It takes just one game and one gritty performance to turn that around, and the chances of Boylen and the Utes settling with two regular-season losses if it meant a victory in the MWC tournament are about as solid as the bottom 90 percent of an iceberg.

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Lennie Mahler

Johnnie Bryant and the Utes will open the MWC tournament tomorrow night against New Mexico in Las Vegas, Nev.

Tyler Cobb

Utah holds the No. 6 seed in the MWC tournament after finishing the conference season with a 7-9 record.