SALT LAKE CITY — When four underclassmen, including the top two scorers, leave a basketball program, there's bound to be wailing and gnashing of teeth among the faithful fans of that program.
That's what's been happening the past couple of weeks with the University of Utah basketball program, which has had four players with remaining eligibility announce they are leaving the program. No matter that the program has had an average of three underclassmen leave per year over the past 20 years. When you're 14-17, you're going to take a beating.
That's how Utah coach Jim Boylen has felt the past two weeks since it was revealed that four players would be moving on, including junior forward Carlon Brown and freshman guard Marshall Henderson. Boylen has been recruiting hard since the season ended and believes his team will be better next year despite the defections.
"We struggled because we didn't play together as a Utah team needs to play," Boylen said. "I have to take responsibility for that. We will fix that and we will be better. Our chemistry and ability to play together will improve. We're moving forward and we're getting better."
Utah athletic director Chris Hill has been hearing the discontent from Ute fans. But he says no one wants the program to be successful more than he does and he is remaining positive the program will improve.
"Obviously it was tough year for our fans because we have realistic expectations, which is a good thing," he said. "Anytime we have disappointment in a season, it's disconcerting, regardless of what the fans think. We have our own standard of what we want to accomplish. Both Jim and I know where we want to be and it's our responsibility to get us there."
One of the ways the Utes are fixing their chemistry problems of 2009-10 is by letting some players go and bringing in new players.
Boylen was careful not to go into too much detail publicly about the players leaving the program and said the reasons for each were different. He said all were good kids and are leaving in good standing academically.
He said Matt Read and Jordan Cyphers both didn't play much this year because they were beaten out by other players and they wanted to go somewhere where they could play more.
"In fairness to them, they need to explore their opportunities to have a better chance to play," Boylen said. "They'd like a better opportunity to go play basketball and that's the bottom line for those two guys. If you don't want any controversy you keep a guy even if you know they're not going to play. But I don't believe in that."
Boylen said he and Brown didn't see eye-to-eye about his role on the team. Brown was more effective the two previous years when he was a supporting player and wasn't one of the five players finishing games unlike this year when he played a lead role.
"He felt he couldn't be successful individually, playing the way I want him to play, so he left," Boylen said. "Although Carlon is a talented player, my job is to get the team to play winning basketball."
Henderson's issues were more off the court, according to Boylen.
"He didn't want to abide by my rules off the floor and wanted to pursue his individualism," Boylen said. "That's not what this program is about. There's no place for that in our basketball program. In our program, you've got to be all in. Guys that are not all in and won't do it the way we want to do it on and off the floor, won't be here."
Boylen often talks about "getting better," but he didn't feel his team improved this year, at least on one end of the floor.
"No, offensively we didn't," he said. "But defensively I thought we did. We were very good. BYU beats us at home and shoots 36 percent. But we had to pitch a shutout every game because offensively we struggled."
Statistically this was one of the worst offensive Ute teams in the past 30 years. The Utes shot 42.8 percent from the field and struggled to score each night. The fact that they're losing their top two leading scorers doesn't bode well. But Boylen feels new players will help make the offense better and says the Utes are making changes with more motion and fewer sets.
"We will play differently next year," he said. "In our core, we need to become a more unselfish group at the offensive end. I'm responsible for our play at the offensive end and that will improve. We recruit to a system and as guys develop in that system, there are adjustments we have to make and we will make those adjustments."
Boylen believes the Ute defections aren't because of poor recruiting.
"Henderson and Brown are good players. They're not leaving because of recruiting," he said. "You're not going to hit on every guy."
Ute fans should know this as much as anyone. Former Ute coach Rick Majerus lost an average of 3.3 players per year during his 15 years as head coach, but still had a successful program.
And Boylen believes his team will be successful with the returning players mixing with those coming in.
The Utes return three players who started a combined 61 games in center David Foster, forward Shawn Glover and guard Jace Tavita. Also returning is Jay Watkins, who averaged nearly 10 points off the bench and will likely start next year, along with center-forward Jason Washburn.
Among the players coming in are forward J.J. O'Brien, swingman Dominique Lee and point guard Preston Guiot, each of whom is good enough to play substantial minutes next year, according to Boylen.
Boylen also expects to sign three junior college players this month although he can't talk about them. Anthony DiMaria, a 6-6 forward from Casper Community College, has already committed and the Utes are also looking at a pair of point guards, a swingman and a big forward.
Next year could be a do-or-die year for Boylen, who will have three years left on his contract after next year. But he says he's not feeling any extra pressure to produce.
"There's always pressure in this job," he said. "What I want to do is continue to improve the direction of the program. I'm the leader of the program and we're going to move forward. I'm excited about the guys coming in. There's always pressure here to win games, always."
Hill said he never speculates about his coaches' futures and says there is no specific benchmark Boylen needs next year in order to keep his job.
"The important thing for our program is that we improve," Hill said. "That can take a lot of different forms. By no means is there any kind of standard or timeline. We just want to show improvement."