SALT LAKE CITY — The homemade sign said, "Boylen Must Go!" but, at that point, few were around to read it. The Huntsman Center was emptying fast. Not that it was all that full to begin. Eighty-five-hundred, paid, though a couple thousand fewer were actually in attendance.
Another day, another chapter in the Jim Boylen Book of Adversity. Chalk up a 71-62 Ute loss to No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday afternoon. And add a footnote that may or may not be relevant at season's end: The Utes didn't give up easily. They lost their focus for a few minutes late, and that was it. So long, upset special.
When it was all done, the teams were right where they started. SDSU continued to be a marquee team, enjoying the best season in the school's 90-year history. The Utes? They're still in reconstruction mode.
"We are close," insisted coach Jim Boylen, "but we've got to break through, because it's all about breaking through."
History is littered with the carcasses of teams that were close. But on Saturday, the Utes actually did look that way. With eight minutes left, they trailed by one and had the ball. But they missed a pair of layups and gave up a 3-pointer. They dribbled out of bounds and got embarrassed late on the boards. In one flurry at the 1 1/2-minute mark, SDSU got three offensive rebounds on the same possession before scoring and being fouled. Quickly, a one-point deficit rose to 11.
"We missed a layup at the rim and they come down and make a 3," Boylen said. "We got stung in a run and didn't react very well."
The Utes have been saying they're close throughout this season. But youth, injuries and player turnover have conspired to morph their program into an afterthought. That much was obvious Saturday.
"We're right there," said center David Foster. "We can play with anybody in the country."
Never mind the losses to the universities of San Diego and Portland.
The way they looked for most of Saturday's game, it's easy to see why the Utes think that way. They have size in 7-footers Foster and Jason Washburn, athleticism in juniors Will Clyburn and Josh Watkins and toughness in freshman J.J. O'Brien, senior Jay Watkins and others. What they don't have is sustainability.
A few minutes of inattention has spelled their doom in most of their losses. Thus, a spiritless season got weaker. That makes it six losses in a row and seven in the last eight. With an 0-2 conference record and 7-9 overall, it would take a mythical comeback to make the NCAA Tournament. But there are too many good teams in the Mountain West for that to happen.
Almost as important to Boylen's future is attendance. Saturday afternoon's crowd looked like a matinee showing of "Gigli." Paid attendance has dropped from an average of 14,281 in 1995-96 to 7,614, or half the house (actual attendance is well below). You can meet more people at a laundromat. That's not just a Ute problem; college basketball nationwide is lagging. Still, it doesn't help.
The Aztecs came in undefeated and ranked. The Utes came in slightly discombobulated. How else do you describe a team that just two weeks ago had another player jump ship? That brings the total to number of defectors to five since March. That's one of the reason for attendance trouble. Unless you watch the Utes closely — who is at this point? — it's hard to recognize a face. It could be the Utes, or it could be the faculty of the astronomy department.
This isn't good news to Ute fans and it's certainly not good news to Boylen. Still, the Utes have some nice players, and from the looks of Saturday's game, they aren't devoid of heart.
Too bad for both Boylen and his team that nobody's sticking around to watch them try.