Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Morgan Grim (45) will be one of several returnees for the Utes.

After completing his first year as Utah's basketball coach, Jim Boylen has mixed feelings about his team's success on the court.

On the positive side, the Utes won seven more games than the previous season in finishing with an 18-15 record.

Perhaps the biggest positive was how much the Utah defense improved over the previous year, when it allowed opponents to shoot an astounding 50 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3-point range. In 2007-08, the numbers were 42 and 36 percent, respectively.

"Before the season, I said if we can establish a more competitive, tougher culture and establish a defensive foundation, I'll feel like we've really set a foundation for our program for the future," Boylen said. "If we had ended the season at 18-15 and not had the defensive foundation laid and not had those improvements on toughness and competitiveness, I'd say we had a lost year."

However, Boylen is quick to say he's not satisfied with his team's overall record and inability to win close games.

"I'm big on the process," he said. "But we've got to win games."

The fact that the Utes weren't blown out of games like they were so many times the previous two years was another positive for the Ute program. All but one of the Ute losses, a 15-point early-season defeat to Santa Clara, was up for grabs going into the final two minutes, and the majority went down to the final minute. The Utes ended up losing eight games by six points or less and two others in overtime.

Boylen can go over the tiniest details of losses, how if this player hadn't missed a layup here or that player hadn't missed free throws there or if the Utes had made stops at certain times, they could have pulled out a few more wins. However, he also knows that a team can't lose every close game, which the Utes nearly managed to do.

"We lost some games we could have won and didn't perform at the end of games how I'd hoped," Boylen said.

Of Utah's 18 wins, all but five were by double-digits. But of Utah's 15 losses, only two were by double digits, both early in the season — the Santa Clara game and the 11-point defeat at Oregon.

Only three of Utah's wins were by less than six points, and the Utes won just two games that went down to the final seconds — their two-point win at Cal and their two-point overtime win over New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament's opening round.

The good news is that the Utes only lose one main player from this year's team and will have five new recruits coming in to join eight returnees.

The Utes will miss Johnnie Bryant, a second-team all-MWC player, who finished as No. 20 on the all-time Ute scoring list with 1,301 career points. He also ended up as the top 3-point shooter in Ute history at 44.0 percent and was second behind Nick Jacobsen for 3-pointers made with 245.

Otherwise, the Utes return their top eight scorers and rebounders and all seven players who started this year — Luke Nevill, Shaun Green, Kim Tillie, Carlon Brown, Luka Drca, Lawrence Borha and Tyler Kepkay, plus Morgan Grim.

Boylen doesn't know yet if he'll continue using Nevill, a 7-foot center, off the bench, but the experiment seemed to help Nevill's stamina and kept him from getting into early foul trouble.

The Utes will certainly have a lot more depth next year, solving a problem which hurt them this year after Stephen Weigh left the program in January and when Tillie was out for a month with an injury. Boylen said he would like to get more speed and quickness into the starting lineup.

Of the newcomers, the guards may have the best chance to step in and play. Chris Hines is a 6-foot guard from Houston; Jace Tavita a 6-4 guard from Brighton High, and Jordan Cyphers a 6-4 guard from Wichita, Kan. The two big guys, 6-11 Chris Washburn from Michigan and 6-7 Josh Sharp from Lone Peak High, will provide needed inside depth.

There's also a possibility one or two players could redshirt next year, including players from this year's squad.

Looking ahead, the Utes will play a challenging schedule in 2008-09. They'll have home games against Oregon, Cal, Gonzaga and Weber State. Road games will include Oklahoma, Missouri State, Utah State, Cal-Irvine, Idaho State and a three-game tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla., where the Utes will have a chance to play the likes of Virginia, Mississippi and Butler.

Season at a glance

Final record: 18-15, 7-9 in MWC

Postseason: After beating New Mexico in the MWC Tournament, the Utes were eliminated by UNLV and were then invited to the inaugural College Basketball Invitational, where they beat UTEP before losing to Tulsa.

Starters lost: None, although sixth-man Johnnie Bryant was second on the team with a 14.2 scoring average.

Starters returning: Luke Nevill (15.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Shaun Green (7.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Lawrence Borha (7.6 ppg), Luke Drca (5.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), Carlon Brown (4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg), Kim Tillie (5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

Season highlights: Road win over Cal, MWC upset of New Mexico, CBI road win over UTEP.

Season lowlights: Two losses to 8th-place Wyoming, 15-point home loss to Santa Clara.

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