Three weeks before the season began, Utah assistant coach Tommy Connor took a look at the improved talent on the practice floor at the Huntsman Center.
Even with the upgrades from last season being obvious — Jordan Loveridge and Justin Seymour being key freshmen — Connor knew there was still a lot of work to be done in rebuilding the program.
“We still have a long way to go,” Connor said that day in late October. “But we’re all committed to turning this thing around.”
If Utah fans are looking for a blueprint of how to turn this thing around, look no further than Oregon.
Ute fans, meet the Ducks, a team that was all but left for dead when Ernie Kent was fired in 2010. You may find that you have a lot in common with them.
When Dana Altman came over from Creighton, he pretty much had no players outside of E.J. Singler. But in three short years, he has Oregon at 18-2 overall, 7-0 in the conference. The Ducks have everything, from point guards, to Singler, to superior big men to wings who get out and finish on the break.
Barring a meltdown in the next month, Oregon will be a high NCAA Tournament seed out west and a candidate to make it all the way to the Final Four. In a season where college basketball seemingly has more parity than in recent years, the Ducks are as good a choice as any to make a run at a championship.
So, how did Oregon become this complete a team? You can point to its great facilities, and the Phil Knight/Nike money machine. But, look closer, particularly at the Ducks’ recruiting. Dominic Artis is the only bona fide top-100 recruit on the roster.
Damyean Dotson, the small forward out of Houston, has been much better than advertised. Tony Woods, an athletic 7-footer, transferred in from Wake Forest. Players like Carlos Emory and Waverly Austin were junior college recruits.
In short, Altman recruited smartly, gave Singler players to work with, and is now doing an excellent job of coaching his talent.
The same can be done at Utah. It doesn’t take five-star guys to turn the Utes around. Loveridge is proving to be an excellent start, a player the staff can build around in the next three years. Seymour and Brandon Taylor have shown flashes of brilliance in their rookie seasons. And the Utah coaching staff is optimistic about the class of recruits coming in next season.
Connor’s words look prophetic now. The fact is, Utah is better. But the Utes are still taking a lot of shots from an improved Pac-12 Conference, and there is still a long way to go.
Consistency is the key. Oregon has put together three consecutive solid classes. That’s what the Utes need to do, build upon recruiting momentum. Once that happens, bank on that turnaround tomorrow that seems so elusive today.