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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The University of Utah's J.J. O'Brien shoots over San Diego State's Tim Shelton, January 8, 2011.


It's been a tough start to the Mountain West Conference basketball season for the University of Utah. Actually, it's been a tough last seven games for Jim Boylen's team. And it was punctuated Tuesday night with the 104-79 loss to BYU at the Huntsman Center.

I don't think I need to go into details about all that has unfolded for the Utes; it's been well documented, both locally and nationally over the last couple of days. What's clear to those who follow the local sports scene is that the Utes are struggling. What might not be so clear is that progress has been made — it's hard to see unless you look closely or follow the team game-in and game-out.

So while many will pile on, let me show a silver lining in the dark clouds hovering around Utah basketball right now. I won't be making excuses for the 7-10 record and the 0-3 start in league play, but will highlight a few reasons why I think things might turn around soon.

I'll start with the performance of freshman JJ O'Brien, who has been working his way back from a broken foot and is beginning to look like the player that Boylen and his staff have raved about.

O'Brien was a top-five high school player in California a year ago and can play everywhere from point to power forward. Against the Cougars he earned his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 boards. O'Brien is clearly the best high school recruit Boylen and his staff have signed in his four seasons at Utah. His combination of size, athleticism and smarts will make him a great cornerstone for the program moving forward.

Then there is the play of Utah big man David Foster, who for the first time this season looked like the guy that was MWC Defensive Player of the Year last season. Foster has been bothered by knee issues this season, which have kept him from practicing and playing major minutes. But in the last couple of weeks he's been able to practice daily and his improvement is beginning to show up in games. His six points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against BYU are good numbers, but the best news for Utah is the 27 minutes he was on the floor.

With Foster regaining his form, the Utes have a legitimate shot-blocking and shot-altering presence on the defensive end of the floor.

And finally, Utah has two of the best newcomers in the league in Josh Watkins and Will Clyburn — Boylen's two best players and leading scorers this season. Both will continue to grow and lead Utah this season.

They are clearly the leaders of this basketball team and being around the team every game I can tell you that no one takes losses harder than Watkins and Clyburn. If the breakthrough is going to occur in conference play, these two players will lead the charge for the Utes.

So, there you have a few reasons why things are pointed in the right direction on the Hill. I don't know where or when the "breakthrough" Boylen has talked about will come. But I do think the program has some reasons to be optimistic, they just have to put a full 40 minutes together. Their next chance will be Saturday afternoon at the Arena Auditorium in Laramie at 1:30 p.m.

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 700 AM.