No one expected this.
After an 18-15 campaign in his first season on the hill, Utah coach Jim Boylen, the 43-year-old, lifelong NBA and collegiate assistant has his team on the national radar in Year 2.
And for good measure.
The now No. 25 Runnin' Utes finished regular season in a funk, as they went through what Boylen called "the gauntlet" in games against fellow Mountain West Conference powers UNLV, BYU, and New Mexico. They went 1-2 in that span, before closing out the regular season by blowing out TCU at the Huntsman Center.
Maybe all Utah needed was some time away from Salt Lake City as the Utes went to Las Vegas and won three straight games, including a down-to-the-wire win in the MWC tournament championship against San Diego State, 52-50.
The NCAA tournament selection committee was apparently impressed.
To much surprise, the Utes received a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region and will face up against the No. 12 Arizona Wildcats, a team that has received a great deal of flak for being selected as one of the last at-large bids by the selection committee. The 19-13 Cats were selected over such teams as the 23-9 Aztecs and the 26-6 Saint Mary's Gaels.
Unfortunately for Utah, this is arguably the toughest No. 5/No. 12 draw in the tournament. Arizona has had a tumultuous season with the resignation of coaching legend Lute Olson and a slew of underachieving talents, but the ability is there.
"This seed is an awesome accomplishment for this team," said Boylen in a statement after his team found out it would play Arizona. "We are excited for the school and it's going to be a great ride. The biggest thing about this seed is that it speaks volumes about the schedule we have played and our non-conference strength of schedule."
According to a plethora of picks by national pundits, the Utes will fall to the Cats in the first-round matchup this Friday in Miami, Fla. Considering the strength of the MWC this season, it's a shame that the conference could only muster two selections—one at-large (BYU) and Boylen's Utes.
Utah will be ready to play just as it has all season long. Utah boasts a 30-point spanking of LSU and an impressive victory over Gonzaga—both of which were played at the Huntsman Center.
"(Utah's schedule) put us in a position to earn a high seed and go to the tournament," Boylen said.
The defensive-minded Utes will have their hands full with an Arizona team that boasts a couple of NBA prospects in small forward Chase Budinger and center Jordan Hill.
Key matchup: Luke Nevill vs. Jordan Hill
The reigning MWC Player of the Year Nevill had an outstanding season as his impressive combination of height (7'2") and touch (60.7 percent from the field) was finally channeled into a winning potion. Nevill often dominated inside against teams that were relatively undersized, such as Wyoming and Colorado State. He even put together a string of impressive games against the Tigers and Bulldogs.
But the senior from Perth, Australia, will have his hands full with Hill. The 6'10", 235-lb., junior from Atlanta was a constant in the Wildcats' success this year as he averaged 18.5 points per game to go along with 11 rebounds. Nevill will be counted on to keep his cool, and be the post presence he has legitimized himself to be this season.
Best player you've never heard of: Shaun Green
The 6'8" senior from Salt Lake City was one of the guys that Boylen didn't envision buying into his system when he arrived at Utah two years ago. But Green responded and he "bought in" to the coach's system and thrived.
The MWC's Sixth Man of the Year is a soft-shooting forward who sank a team-high 73 three-pointers this season and led the Utes in steals with 36 thefts on the season. It's Green's shooting ability that busts opponents' zones, which are often used on the big man Nevill.
Utah's X-Factors: Carlon Brown and Luka Drca
The two "youngsters" on a Utah team that has a seven-man rotation are the 6'5" sophomore Brown out of Riverside, Calif., and the 6'5" Drca, the oversized point guard from Serbia. These are two of the Utes' playmakers as they are the teams' top two assist men. Brown has developed into a point-forward as he has immaculate slashing abilities and penetration ability through the lane.
Brown's athletic ability is uncanny as he has landed on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays three times this season for thunderous dunks. Drca is the quarterback that Boylen often describes as having "ice in his veins." The junior has amazing court vision, but along with Brown, they are two of Utah's biggest turnover machines. Turnovers have been a thorn in Utah's side all season long and if the Utes want to advance in the tournament, they will need these two playmakers to protect the ball, distribute, and direct traffic.
Utah's biggest cause for concern: Chase Budinger
The NBA was knocking on his door last year and he kept it closed. The 6'7" swingman has the athletic ability and dead-eye shooting to ruin Utah's shot at advancing out of the round of 64. Budinger averages 17.9 points per game, alongside 6.3 boards and 3.4 assists.
Utah has no legit No. 3 in its lineup and it will come down to the defensive wizard Boylen to draw up some schemes to rotate defenders onto Budinger and disrupt his game. Expect Green, Brown, and perhaps the 6'10' Frenchman Kim Tillie to be a few of the Utes expected to slow down Arizona's most dangerous threat.
If the Utes can advance past the first round, they will play the winner of the No. 4 Wake Forest-No. 13 Cleveland State matchup. The Demon Deacons have arguably the most talented and NBA prospect-laden team in the tournament and are led by speedster guard Jeff Teague.
Teague, a 6'2" guard out of Indianapolis, has scored 25 or more points eight times this season and can get to the hoop at will. Utah's defensive stopper is Lawrence Borha, a senior from Staten Island, New York.
Borha also has been Utah's clutch player this year, hitting three game-winning shots. But Boylen turned the former score-first two-guard into a defensive bulldog, and if the Utes expect to beat the Wildcats, he will surely be matched up against Nic Wise and most definitely Teague if the Utes meet Wake Forest in the second round.
What needs to go right for Utah
It comes down to two basics. The Utes need to play defense and shoot the ball well. Utah has defensive lockdown ability at times and with teams often zoning up Nevill, the four shooters roaming the perimeter need to hit shots.
The Utes will use their typical seven-man rotation and if they are to advance in the tournament, the bench play, along with Tillie's versatility, and the play of the team's four seniors will be keys. Senior guard Tyler Kepkay will be a key cog coming off the bench and knocking down timely shots, which he has done all year.
Boylen won two NBA championships during his time as an assistant for the Houston Rockets, so don't expect the Utes to have too many mind lapses. Boylen will keep his team in check, focused, and energized.