SALT LAKE CITY — I wrote in this space a week ago about Utah basketball and the fact there appears to be pieces in place and that progress is there, although sometimes it's been tough to see the progress.
Well, last week's "View from the Booth" was met with harsh comments and criticism here and elsewhere. I understand why and the timing of last week's column wasn't great coming on the heels of the blowout loss to BYU. Still, I stand by my assessment: There are quality building blocks in place for Jim Boylen's program.
That assessment was validated for at least one game last Saturday against the Wyoming Cowboys. Facing one of the more athletic and tough teams in the league, Utah played its best basketball in more than a month, and ended its longest losing streak in more than 60 years.
Once again Will Clyburn and Josh Watkins led the way in scoring for the Utes, and freshman JJ O'Brien provided great energy and defense. But the real story Saturday was the continued strong play of 7-footer David Foster.
Foster's line? Four points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.
But his impact on the game was much greater. Foster, who has been battling tendinitis in his left knee much of this season, is finally getting back physically to where he was a year ago, when he was named MWC Defensive Player of the Year.
Foster has been much more active in recent weeks, with his improving knee allowing him to practice and play more minutes. Over the last three games, Foster has posted double-digit rebounding totals. But it's the presence of his 7-3 frame that allows Utah to play defense the way it likes to play.
In addition to the blocked shots, Foster changed at least four others Saturday afternoon. For the Runnin' Utes to continue to improve throughout conference season, they need Foster's presence on the defensive end of the floor. For while there has been incremental improvement, the Utes don't have the experience, depth or margin for error to make more improvement without Foster on the floor.
The Utes get back at it tonight at home against New Mexico. It's another huge test for Boylen's team. While the Lobos may not have the same cachet or ranking this season as San Diego State or BYU, they are a quality team with a 13-5 record (1-2 MWC).
Steve Alford had to replace his top scorer from a year ago, Darington Hobson, and his "Glue Guy," Roman Martinez. But what he does have is the league's most underrated point guard in Darise Gary, UCLA transfer Drew Gordon and an outstanding freshman big man in Alex Kirk. The match-up should be a very good one IF Utah brings the same energy and effort it brought to the floor in their win at Wyoming.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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