SALT LAKE CITY —At the end of a long season, the Runnin' Utes play inside the Huntsman Center for the last two times this week. Heading into this week’s home matchups with Oregon State and Oregon, the Utes have won nine games at home this year, three more games than the program won all of last season in Larry Krystkowiak’s first year on the job.
Truth be told, there are probably at least two more home games that should be in the W column for Utah. (Sacramento State and Cal Northridge come immediately to mind.) Those games would bring the win total to 13 overall and 11 at home.
Either way, progress has been slow — certainly too slow for most Utah basketball fans. Most fans I spoke with before the season optimistically saw this year’s team winning between 15 and 19 games, which is not likely to happen. I tried to temper some folks' expectations. I knew the team would be better — it was going to be very difficult to be worse than a year ago — but I knew despite the influx of better talent that it would be a difficult season. That has certainly played itself out in Pac-12 Conference action.
But even with the struggles this season, there has been progress, albeit in small amounts, and if you weren’t around the program for every game it might be difficult to see.
Here are three key areas where Utah basketball has made big strides from a year ago:
• Overall Talent: From top to bottom the overall talent in the Utah program is night and day different from a year ago. There still needs to be an upgrade at most positions to be competitive in the Pac-12, but the foundation is there thanks to a very good freshman class.
• Point Guard: This may come as a surprise to many who have watched the Utes this season, but the one thing the program has lacked for almost a decade is a true point guard and floor leader. Krystkowiak has found that in freshman Brandon Taylor. I would make the argument that you have to go back to Marc Jackson in 2004 to find the last Utes point guard who was a leader, scorer and true point guard. Taylor is that guy right now for Utah. With the addition of East High's Parker Van Dyke next season and the return of Glen Dean, Utah will have good depth and talent at the position.
• Defense: In a year that’s seen the passing and honoring of Utah’s greatest hoops coach of all time — Rick Majerus — there’s been no better tribute than the way the Utes have played on the defensive end of the floor. While they’ve had a couple of hiccups along the way, their overall defensive effort ranks among the best in Pac-12 this season.
The common refrain for Runnin' Utes basketball in recent years has been two words: "next year." That’s certainly something to look forward to. But I hope Utah fans will support this year's team — especially its five seniors — in the final two home games of the season, beginning Thursday against Oregon State. While the last two seasons have been some of the toughest for fans in the program’s proud history, this senior class has helped lay the foundation for a turnaround and perhaps return to competing for conference titles. The Utes' progress has been slow, but they’ve put in the work and deserve the fans' appreciation for it.
Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.