What the Utes lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. Returning just four lettermen from last season, one might think a total overhaul is in store for Utah. However, three of the returnees are starters-including the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year-the other a proven three-year veteran. So, although there is work to be done, Rick Majerus has some key building blocks to utilize as he embarks on his 14th season on The Hill.
If anyone is capable of molding a team with just 10 scholarship players into a winner, it is Majerus. Ranking third among active NCAA Division I coaches with a .740 career winning percentage in 18 seasons, the Ute head coach has a proven track record of building winners. In fact, one of Majerus' best retooling jobs may have taken place midway through last season.
Before fall practice even began, guard Kevin Bradley, the leading scorer from the previous year before, was an academic casualty. Working with four newcomers and only two returnees who had played significant minutes for him over the past three years, Majerus had to guide his team through some early growing pains. Following a 3-3 start, the Utes were just beginning to hit their stride in late December when senior center Chris Burgess, who led the team in scoring and rebounding at the time, was lost for the season with a foot injury.
Faced with having to go the rest of the way without his most formidable inside presence, Majerus went back to the drawing board, restructuring Utah into a perimeter-oriented team. The Utes adjusted well, finishing the season ranked eighth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (40.5) and making the most threes in school history (236). Although Utah failed to win its eighth consecutive regular-season conference championship, it finished 21-9 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight years.
With the losses of Bradley and Burgess, forward Britton Johnsen and guard Nick Jacobson were asked to play bigger roles-both responded affirmatively. Johnsen was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year after ranking 13th in the league in scoring (12.6 ppg) and eighth in rebounding (6.3 rpg). In the final 20 games without Burgess, the senior from Murray, Utah, led the Utes in rebounding 14 times with an average of 7.4 boards per contest. Jacobson, who led Utah's three-point attack, earned third team all-MWC honors. The junior from Fargo, N.D., ranked 12th in the conference in scoring (13.0 ppg) and was 23rd in the nation in three-point percentage (44.4). Returning both Johnsen and Jacobson gives Majerus some cause for optimism.
"Last year, I thought our team handled adversity very well, given the loss of Kevin Bradley and Chris Burgess," says Majerus. "The strength of this year's team will hopefully be the fact that there's a carryover value from the previous season."
Senior forward/guard Trace Caton also showed his wears last season as a rock-solid defender. He played in all 30 games and started four, averaging 22 minutes. Senior center Cameron Koford took over as the day-to-day starter at center the second half of the season.
The Utes have brought on two college veterans who should be able to contribute right away. Junior Tim Frost was a first team all-West Coast Conference center at Portland before transferring to Utah a year ago. Sophomore Marc Jackson, a reserve point guard for Utah in 2000-01 before leaving on an LDS Church mission, is back on board.
Four freshmen also hope to contribute. Chris Jackson, who sat out last season as a redshirt, will vie for playing time in the post. Majerus raided the Golden State to land a trio of talented freshmen in point guard Tim Drisdom, wingman Richard Chaney and forward Bryant Markson.
As he sets out to develop this assortment of individuals into a cohesive group, Majerus likes the make-up of his team.
"I'm energized by their enthusiasm to date and I feel that Trace Caton provides us with a captaincy that will be among the best during my tenure at Utah," reveals Majerus. "Senior leadership, provided by Britton and Trace, and Trace's captaincy are imperative to our success. I think those facets are in place.
"I think that we will have a more balanced scoring attack with at least some semblance of an inside game. Last year's team did not have an inside presence, and that was sorely missed. This year's team, with Tim Frost coming on board, certainly will. Hoping to join Frost in creating that inside presence should be a much-improved Britton Johnsen. We now need for Cameron Koford to step forward and be the player he is capable of becoming. Chris Jackson has a huge upside, as well. Both of those guys, given their size, have to rebound the ball."
In The Paint
Like the old saying goes, if you live by the three, you die by the three. That was the case for Utah last season when it was forced to rely heavily on making outside shots. While losing six of their last 11 games, the Utes shot 35.8 percent from three-point range compared to 43.6 percent over the first 19 games, when they went 16-3. Utah was also uncharacteristically weak on the boards last season, ranking sixth out of eight teams in the Mountain West with a +0.7 rebounding margin. In hopes of developing a team more to his liking this season, Majerus will be looking to the Utes' interior players for high percentage shots and a strong effort on the boards.
Senior forward Britton Johnsen (6-10, 210), named a preseason Wooden Award candidate, has played in 82 games his last three seasons. A key reserve during Utah's run to the national title game in 1997-98, Johnsen left on a two-year LDS Church mission before coming back to start all but six games the last two years. Johnsen possesses the moves and quickness to score on the low block, as well as the jump shot and athleticism to be a double-threat on the perimeter. In addition to being the Utes' second-best scorer and top rebounder last season, Johnsen ranked 12th in the Mountain West in field goal percentage (49.6) and 15th in three-point accuracy (35.6). He also had five double-doubles-all of which were in conference play-and has scored in double figures in 38 of the last 55 games. Majerus is hopeful of getting even more out of Johnsen this season.
"Britton has really responded during the course of the summer, and I'm optimistic for what this season holds for him," says Majerus. "His weight is very good and his strength is even better. Britton is trying to make a determined effort now to defend, but he must become a dominant rebounder on both boards as someone with his size and bounce would indicate. He's an unselfish player, and this is a wonderful attribute; however, he must work harder to get the ball in better scoring positions."
Senior Cameron Koford (7-0, 227) will be asked to step-up his game and become more consistent. Starting 13 of the final 15 games, the center from Plain City, Utah, averaged 5.2 points and 3.2 rebounds, shot 65.0 percent from the field and had 13 blocked shots over that stretch. However, after scoring in double figures three times and getting eight rebounds on three occasions in his first eight starts, his productivity trailed off over the final five games.
"Cameron has a lot of potential, now that potential must be realized," challenges Majerus. "He's got bounce and can run, but has to understand that it's a contact sport. If he's willing to throw his body in there and give his body to the game, he should have a very fine senior year for us. He has touch and is a very bright player. His only limits are if he doesn't come to play with energy and enthusiasm. When playing with those characteristics, Cameron has demonstrated that he is a fine player."
Tim Frost (6-10, 236) steps on the court after having to sit out last season as a transfer. The junior center/forward from Klamath Falls, Ore., started 49 games in two seasons at Portland, earning first team all-conference honors in 2000-01. In his final season with the Pilots, he averaged 14.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots per game. He also shot 77.4 percent at the free throw line.
"Tim has a big upside to him and should become a classic four man in the Utah system: someone who is able to play out on the floor and go into the post, as well," outlines Majerus. "Tim is a fine outside shooter and has worked very hard to acquire a solid low post game. He's going to have to come up big on the boards for us to have a good team. He must make a determined effort to rebound on both ends of the floor as well as a player with his good size and hands should."
Chris Jackson (6-11, 242), a second-year freshman from Los Alamos, N.M., sat out his rookie season with the Utes after breaking a bone in his right foot in late November. Jackson was named the New Mexico Player of the Year by USA Today as a high school senior, averaging 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.9 blocked shots per game. He was also a national merit scholarship finalist.
"Chris is a player who cannot be governed by paralysis of analysis," explains Majerus. "He is incredibly bright, but must play with more passion and heart and use his body to the max. He must also understand that he has to rebound on both boards and establish himself as an offensive low post presence and a defensive lane-stopper. Those tasks are very formidable; how soon he begins to accomplish them will determine his play and our performance as a team."
On The Perimeter
Led by sharp-shooting guard Nick Jacobson (6-4, 198), the Utes should once again be an excellent three-point shooting team. However, Majerus is faced with the challenge of grooming two point guards who weren't with the team last season.
Leading the team in scoring last season, Jacobson reached double-figures in 21 of the 30 games and set the Utah single-season record with 71 three-pointers. The Fargo, N.D., native, who has been in the starting lineup for all but four games since his freshman year, has already climbed into seventh place in both career three-pointers made (108) and attempted (257) at Utah. His career three-point percentage of 42.0 would rank fourth all-time at the U.
"Nick is obviously a very good shooter and someone who has worked hard on his game," compliments Majerus. "Nick is well on his way to becoming a good defender, but he must rebound the ball much better and learn to get out and run the floor. We're anticipating an improvement in his overall game, particularly his ballhandling and passing skills."
Senior Trace Caton (6-4, 211) has averaged 15.4 minutes in 94 games over the course of his career, which started during Utah's run to the Final Four in 1997-98. Struggling at times to find a role on the team after returning from a two-year LDS Church mission in 2000-01, Caton played significant minutes last season. The Alamosa, Colo., native averaged 4.8 points and 2.1 rebounds per game and shot 50.0 percent (27-of-54) from three-point range; however, his statistics don't accurately reflect his true value.
"Trace is a terrific captain, outstanding team leader and committed player," says Majerus. "His rebounding and defensive efforts are superb. We're looking forward to a productive senior year from Trace, both in the classroom and on the court. He is an Academic All-America candidate and will graduate as a true scholar-athlete."
Sophomore Marc Jackson (6-1, 177) and freshman Tim Drisdom (6-3, 203) will be asked to hold down the point guard position. Jackson, a native of Salt Lake City and graduate of Olympus High School, played in 21 games in 2000-01. When he returned early from an LDS Church mission last fall and a scholarship wasn't available at the U., he joined the team at Utah Valley State. Since he redshirted the season, Jackson still has three years of eligibility remaining.
"Marc is a committed young man," says Majerus. "He is in superb shape, a terrific competitor and has undergone a transformation from a stellar high school scorer to a sharing-the-ball point guard. He'll be able to play both guard positions for us, and I'm excited about his toughness and commitment. He should be a very good defender and a fine rebounding guard. We're counting on him to be a cerebral point guard and team leader."
Drisdom is one of three California recruits coming into the fold. The Artesia native was named the California player of the year twice in his division. He was also a three-time first team all-state selection, leading Calvary Chapel High School to the CIF title in 2001 and the finals in 2002.
"Tim has an excellent feel for passing the ball. He is a fine passer in transition, can feed the post, and should be able to penetrate, draw and kick," states Majerus. "It's a special plus when your point guard can shoot, and Tim is a fine shooter. But, his defensive commitment has to be intact, and it's going to be important for him to get into condition. We're also waiting to see how determined he will play relative to defending and rebounding."
Richard Chaney (6-4, 186) and Bryant Markson (6-6, 182) have also migrated from Southern California. Chaney, who is expected to play on the wing, was named first team all-CIF and all-conference as a junior and senior. He is one of the best players to come out of Verbum Dei High School since former Ute All-American Andre Miller, and led the school to the CIF title in 2002.
"Richard has a big upside to him, which in large part is going to be determined by his ability to get strong and play with a physical presence," says Majerus. "He should become a very good shooter. But, not unlike other freshmen, he needs to learn to play without the ball and bring a defensive presence to the game."
Markson, out of Monrovia High School, is a former San Gabriel Player of the Year and two-time all-CIF pick. Markson suffered an ACL tear before his senior year and is still not fully recovered.
"I don't know if he'll hit his optimal physical stride until mid or late season, but we don't want that to be a reason for why he can't succeed," Majerus points out. "He's a bright young guy who can put the ball on the floor, should be a good rebounder in traffic and has to play with an eye toward the glass. It's important that he utilize his quickness and athletic ability, first and foremost, on the defensive end of the floor. That is something this team needs and he can provide early in his career."
Guards John Hille (6-1, 177) and David Reichner (6-2, 190) have joined the team as non-scholarship players. Hille, a junior, was a teammate of Marc Jackson's at Olympus High School and Utah Valley State. Hille was named third team all-SWAC in 2001-02 and an NJCAA Academic All-American twice. Reichner is in his second stint as a non-scholarship player with the Utes. The senior from Fontana, Calif., was on the team in 2000-01 but did not see any game action. Reichner started as a freshman at Southern Virginia College in 1998-99.
The Utes will face another tough lineup of nonconference foes this season. Utah makes an appearance in the Maui Invitational for the third time in the last nine years, has match-ups with four defending conference champions during its pre-Mountain West slate overall and has 15 games against teams that advanced to postseason play last season.
"Once again, we play a premiere non-league schedule," says Majerus. "That fact that we've been to nine NCAA Tournaments and that our average seed has been a No. 5 speaks to the strength of our overall schedule. We have games against a top 10 team like Alabama and a contender for the Pac-10 title in Arizona State at home, two outstanding West Coast Conference teams like Gonzaga in Maui and Pepperdine on the road, and the three in-state teams, all of which have excellent coaches and personnel. Our players enjoy that type of competition, and our fans will be treated to that big time college basketball atmosphere."
Entering its fourth year of existence, the Mountain West Conference is quickly establishing itself as one of the top basketball leagues in the nation. The MWC sent a record six schools to postseason play in 2002 and was one of only two leagues in the country to have 75 percent of its teams competing in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. A record three Mountain West teams received NCAA bids.
"This will be perhaps the most challenging conference race since I've been the coach at Utah," confides Majerus. "From top to bottom, there is incredible parity in the league, and the recruiting has picked up. San Diego State has landed one of the five premiere high school seniors in the country in Evan Burns. BYU has added one of the five premiere junior college players in the country in Rafael Araujo. Colorado State returns its team intact. Wyoming returns the best player in the league, Marcus Bailey, not to mention great depth. UNLV has one of the top five transfers in the college basketball in Demetrius Hunter, and they have a terrific team coming back, as well.
"Each and every night you have to play in this league. The coaches are well-prepared, committed and superb strategists. I think this will be the strongest power ranking our league has ever had. In light of last year's demonstrated success that is a bold statement, but nevertheless a true one."