Junior guard Johnnie Bryant led the Utes in scoring (13.1 ppg) and assists (2.4 apg) last season.
Oct. 13, 2006
Could the 2006-07 season be the start of the something special for Utah basketball? With Ray Giacoletti's rebuilding efforts starting to take full effect in his third season, there certainly are encouraging signs.
As is the case with any long-term project, the initial stages can be slow and tedious. After losing National Player of the Year Andrew Bogut and five other lettermen from the 2004-05 NCAA Sweet 16 run, the Utes were unquestionably a work in progress a year ago.
However, several young players gained valuable experience at the Division I level last season, and four starters and two other lettermen return from that team in 2006-07. The Utes also add a highly touted recruiting class, and a promising junior who redshirted last season. With several key pieces now in place, Giacoletti is pleased with the way his rebuilding plan is progressing.
"We only have one senior, but we have a great foundation now in our freshman and sophomore classes. That's how you build something to sustain success over the long term," outlines Giacoletti. "Our objective when we started two years ago was to bring in freshmen who would be here for four or five years, and watch them grow and mature. I think we've been pretty fortunate with the guys we've gotten in those classes."
Three of last year's rookies--guard Johnnie Bryant, center Luke Nevill and forward Shaun Green--ranked in the Utes' top five in points, rebounds and assists. Guards Lawrence Borha and Ricky Johns also played significant minutes in their first year. Junior guard Chris Grant, a former walk-on, earned a starting role for half of the season.
"I think Luke Nevill, based on the freshman year he had and the progress he's made since then, is going to be one of the major strengths of this year's team," confides Giacoletti. "He's up to 265 pounds, has a great mind-set, and I think he's as ready as he will be at any time to really take the next step in his growth as a basketball player. There probably aren't five guys like him in the country who are a true low-post player and can score the ball."
"Johnnie Bryant and Shaun Green got great experience last year and started almost every game," Giacoletti continues. "They've made good strides during the offseason, and we're going to get good help right away from our freshman class."
Utah signed six scholarship freshmen for 2006-07, and Giacoletti projects four of them will make an immediate impact. USA Today ranked forward Daniel Deane and point guard Curtis Eatmon in the top 100 of the 2006 recruiting class. Guard/forward Stephen Weigh of Australia and forward Kim Tillie of France have both played extensively with their country's junior national programs.
"Stephen has the chance to be a very good college basketball player," Giacoletti says as he evaluates his newcomers. "Kim has a great upside to him. He's 6-9, athletic and extremely coachable. Daniel is a tough, hard-nosed guy who is going to be able to play right away just because of his body. Curtis is someone who, because of his athleticism and ability to defend, will be able to play right away in the backcourt."
Two other freshmen, guard Luka Drca and center David Foster, could also contend for playing time. Junior post player, Misha Radojevic, a transfer who sat out last season with a knee injury, is on target to be fully recovered by the start of the season. Combining the abundance of incoming talent with the six veterans, Giacoletti will have several players capable of contributing this season.
"I think we're going to have good depth," Giacoletti says enthusiastically. "That will allow us to get out and push the ball more so than we were able to our first two years. That's definitely a point of emphasis going into this season. But in order for us to do that, we're going to have to be a good defensive team and a good rebounding team. We should have the capability of doing both of those things."
Sophomore center Luke Nevill (7-1, 265) had an excellent freshman season, earning all-Mountain West Conference honorable mention. The native of Melbourne, Australia, was the Utes' third-leading scorer (11.6 ppg), and led the team in rebounds (6.6 rpg) and blocked shots (27). Nevill also shot 53.2 percent from the field.
While his overall numbers were impressive enough, Nevill really started coming into his own late in the season. As a starter in 12 of the final 13 games, Nevill averaged 14.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and hit 74.7 percent of his free throw attempts. Three of his four double-doubles and 11 of his 18 double-figure scoring games last year also came during that stretch.
Nevill's signature game came against BYU in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Nevill had season highs of 29 points and 14 rebounds against the Cougars. He shot 9-for-15 from the field and 11-for-15 from the free throw line in 33 minutes.
"I am extremely proud of Luke," says Giacoletti. "To watch his growth from his redshirt year to his freshman year to where he's at now, it's just so much fun to see somebody mature as a person. His upside is unlimited."
Backing up Nevill will be Misha Radojevic (6-10, 255), a junior from Belgrade, Serbia. Radojevic transferred to Utah prior to last season after playing in the Serbian amateur league. He figured to get considerable playing time before tearing the ACL in his right knee in preseason workouts. Compounding the recovery process, Radojevic re-injured the knee and had a second surgery in January.
"If I have one hope for Misha, it's that he's able to stay injury free this year," says Giacoletti sympathetically. "He did contact drills for the first time in a year this fall, and we've just been looking for gradual progress. We're hopeful that he can help us, but we just need to be patient with him."
Shaun Green (6-8, 208) was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season at the four position. The Salt Lake City native was a solid all-around contributor, ranking fourth on the team in scoring (6.4 ppg), third in rebounds (3.8 rpg), third in assists (2.1 apg), second in steals (31) and second in blocked shots (11). Green also hit 43-of-113 shots from behind the arc (38.1 percent), setting the school freshman record for three-pointers made and attempted.
"I think the experience Shaun gained a year ago is going to be invaluable," says Giacoletti. "He's been through the wars now. Shaun is going to be a very good college basketball player. He's gained some strength and his body looks great. He's shooting the ball very confidently heading into the season."
Deane was named Utah's "Mr. Basketball" in 2005-06 after leading Judge Memorial High School to the 3A state title. He averaged 16.5 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots per game as a senior. Deane also attended the NBA Top 100 camp in the summer of 2005.
"Daniel is a tough, hard-nosed, physical guy. He can really rebound the basketball. He is someone who, because of his toughness, can help us immediately," explains Giacoletti.
Tillie is an active rebounder, can shoot from the perimeter and score off the dribble. The native of Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, helped his country's Under-18 Team win the European Championship last July. Tillie also averaged eight points and six rebounds while playing for France in the prestigious Albert Schwietzer Tournament last spring.
"Kim had a great summer with the French Under-18 team. He's got big time upside," raves Giacoletti. "He's extremely athletic and a hard worker. We're very excited about his future."
David Foster (7-2, 230) has developed a bit more quickly than was anticipated, and could earn some playing time this season. The Lake Forest, Calif., native was a first team all-CIF Division 1-A selection in 2005-06. He averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots per game as a senior.
"David has a huge upside," evaluates Giacoletti. "He is a hard worker who is going to be a very good basketball player in the future. He is really long, runs the floor well, has great hands, and is extremely coachable. The sky's the limit for him."
Junior guard Johnnie Bryant (6-0, 180) did a lot of everything in his first season with the Utes. The Oakland, Calif., product led the team in scoring (13.1 ppg), assists (2.4 apg), three-point percentage (45.9) and free throw percentage (83.3), earning all-Mountain West Conference honorable mention. He also tied for second in three-point percentage and fourth in three-pointers made (68) on the Ute single-season charts.
Bryant had four 20-point games and a team-best 20 double-figure scoring games in 2005-06. He reached double digits in points in all but two conference games, raising his scoring average in league play to 15.4 points per game to rank seventh in the MWC.
After earning his associate's degree a semester early, Bryant took a redshirt year and transferred to the U. with three years of eligibility remaining. Bryant's diligence in the classroom has continued. He is on track to earn his undergraduate degree from the U. this fall.
Giacoletti has been impressed with Bryant's work ethic all around. Bryant dedicated himself to improving his conditioning over the summer and slimmed down 10 pounds.
"Johnnie worked hard during the offseason," raves Giacoletti. "He's become more athletic and, I think more than anything, he's done some things to challenge himself to become mentally tougher. I can see that already defensively. He can really shoot the basketball, and I think the year of experience he had last year will pay huge dividends this year."
Freshmen Curtis Eatmon (6-3, 175) and Luka Drca (6-5, 195) will vie for playing time behind Bryant at point guard. If one or both of them can play significant minutes, that would allow Bryant to move over to shooting guard and focus more on scoring.
Eatmon, a native of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., was named first team all-CIF and conference MVP as a senior. He was one of the Inland Empire's leaders in assists, steals and three-point shooting the last three seasons. Eatmon averaged 14 points, six rebounds and five assists per game in 2005-06.
"Curtis is a very good defender. I like his toughness for a freshman," comments Giacoletti. "He's a guy who can really pass the basketball and push it in transition."
Drca, who hails from Belgrade, Serbia, can play both guard positions. Drca played in the Serbian amateur league last season, averaging 16 points and 4.5 assists per game. He was invited to the NBA's Basketball Without Boarders European Camp in 2004.
"Luka can really pass the ball well," says Giacoletti. "He needs work defensively, but I think as time goes on and he starts to understand what's expected--and the language barrier becomes less of a hindrance--I think he's going to get better and better."
Senior Ricky Johns (6-3, 190) and sophomore Lawrence Borha (6-3, 205) are expected to get the majority of the minutes at shooting guard. Both played better down the stretch in their first season at Utah and carried that momentum into the offseason.
Johns, the only senior on the team, joined the Utes after playing two years at Monroe College in New York. The Bronx native played in 26 games with one start in 2005-06, averaging 3.8 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.
Although his numbers weren't dazzling, Johns was a solid defender and grew more comfortable in the offense as the year progressed. He had an excellent summer playing with the Jamaican National Team. While helping Jamaica win the CBC Championship, Johns averaged 9.6 points per game, shot 60 percent from the field and made 8-of-17 three-pointers.
"Ricky had a tough junior year, but I think he played his best basketball the last month of the season," evaluates Giacoletti. "He had a great experience with the Jamaican National team this summer. He's as confident as I've seen him since he's been here, especially shooting the basketball."
Borha played in all 29 contests and started seven times last season, including both games in the Mountain West Tournament. The Staten Island, N.Y., native averaged 3.7 points, 1.8 rebounds and an assist per game.
"With the invaluable experience Lawrence was able to gain last year, I think he has come back with a renewed energy and focus," evaluates Giacoletti. "He's versatile enough to help us in a lot of different ways, the first being on the defensive end of the floor. He's also shooting the ball as well as he has since he's been here."
Junior guard Chris Grant (6-3, 200), a walk-on two years ago, worked his way into a starting role at two guard for 16 games last season. Grant averaged nearly three assists per game in conference play to lead the Utes and rank ninth in the MWC in that category. The Salt Lake City native also had a 1.59 assist/turnover ratio while averaging 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in league games.
"Chris played a ton of minutes last year and got great experience," says Giacoletti. "He has all of the intangibles. He's smart, plays extremely hard, and is a good teammate... a true winner."
Freshman Stephen Weigh (6-6, 220) is the leading candidate to start at small forward. He can shoot with range, score off the dribble and be effective in the low-post. A native of Rockhampton, Australia, Weigh played two seasons with his country's junior national team. Weigh led Australia in scoring at the 2005 Jones Cup, a FIBA International Tournament, averaging 18 points and five rebounds per game.
"Stephen is a product of the Australian Institute of Sport and has great fundamentals. I think he has the chance to have a great career here," says Giacoletti.
Forward Sayre Brennan (6-6, 215), a transfer from Suffolk Community College in New York, and Craig Cusick (6-2, 185), a guard from Orem, Utah, will give the Utes depth on the wings. Both are first-year non-scholarship players. Brennan earned academic all-region honors in 2005-06. Cusick was a first team all-state selection as a junior and senior.
The Utes open their regular season against Southern Utah on Nov. 10 in the Huntsman Center. The 29-game schedule is headlined by home games with Colorado, Rice, Washington State and Weber State, and road games at Rhode Island and Utah State.
Utah will also participate in the San Juan Shootout, Dec. 19-21 in Puerto Rico. The Utes play Central Florida in the first round. The tournament field also includes Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Virginia.
"I think it's a very good nonconference schedule for where we are in our growth as a team," surveys Giacoletti. "We have a good lineup of home games, and our road games will really test us. Utah State is probably one of the toughest places to play in the country that nobody knows about."
"I've only been in the Mountain West Conference for going on three years now, but what everyone is telling me is that this is the best the league has been from top to bottom since it has been in existence," Giacoletti continues. "A lot of teams have experienced veterans returning. The feeling around the league is that nine of top 10 returning players in the conference are seniors."
Since the beginning of the `90s, Utah basketball has been synonymous with 20-win seasons, conference championships and NCAA Tournament runs. Will the Utes reach any of those milestones this season? Giacoletti isn't ready to make any guaratees, but he most definitely likes the make-up of his young team and the direction the program is heading.
"I feel like we've got the right kind of guys, the right kind of mentality and the depth to be able to do the things we want to do," Giacoletti explains. "I would even say we're a little bit further ahead than we planned on being with these first two classes. I really like our team, and I think this year could the start of something special."