Utah coach Jim Boylen has done an excellent job in his first year at the head of the Ute basketball program.

However, as well as he's done in leading his team to an 8-4 record, Boylen feels there's another first-year coach in the country, actually in his own conference, who's done better.

That would be Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds, who brings his 8-5 Falcons to the Huntsman Center today (noon, The mtn.-TV) for the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.

"I don't think a coach has done a better job in the country of getting a team to really come along and play within the system and play together," Boylen said. "Jeff Reynolds has done an unbelievable job. The true test of a good coach is how the guys improve as the season goes on, and they're improving exponentially, from what I've seen."

Boylen's observations came from watching film of the Falcons early in the season and comparing it to last week's close loss at Wake Forest.

Ute fans won't recognize the players as the Falcons have nearly a completely new team from last year when they went 26-9, made it to the NIT semifinals and were ranked in the top 25 for most of the season.

But they will recognize the style of play.

"They're going to come in here and try to make the pace of the game theirs," Boylen said. "They just pick you apart and grind you up and move the ball from side to side and get it to the middle. They are scary to watch on film because they seem to have great chemistry at both ends right now."

The only returning starter from last year is guard Tim Anderson, who leads the team at 14.2 points and 3.2 assists per game. The other starters will be senior center Keith Maren, freshman guard Evan Washington and junior forwards Anwar Johnson and Matt Holland. Junior swingman Andrew Henke comes off the bench and averages 11.8 ppg.

"This is a big challenge for us because of the toughness with which they play and the speed with which they execute," Boylen said.

Boylen was happy with the way his team got the ball into Luke Nevill last game, saying he had 30 touches, the most of the season.

He was also pleased with the number of wide-open 3-pointers the Utes had, saying 23 of the 27 attempts were good shots. However, he said the Utes need to knock down more of those shots both on the outside and inside.

Boylen isn't predicting a MWC title, but believes his team will "be in the hunt" for the title.

"I think we're getting better," Boylen said. "I don't talk a lot about wins and losses with my team. I talk about getting better and learning how to play together, learning how to play when you're tired. Winning is what it's about. But if this team gets better every time we practice, and every time we play, we're going to have a successful season. I really believe that."

E-mail: sor@desnews.com