Ute hoops both fatigued and energized
They traveled for hours on end in cramped airplane and bus seats, played in unheated gymnasiums in the middle of winter, endured hard practices in the mornings before games, and - just in case that wasn't enough - caught a cold and passed it around.
Some summer vacation, huh?
Yet the Utah Utes returned to campus for the first day of fall semester Monday exhilarated at the prospect of what their challenging journey might mean for the upcoming season.
"We're going to be a lot better than last year," forward Shaun Green said.
Granted, that's not exactly a championship guarantee, given that the Utes finished a miserable 11-19 last season. But it does hint at promising days ahead, and suggests that the Utes have far more confidence in new coach Jim Boylen than they did in former coach Ray Giacoletti.
"I can tell there's a difference," center Luke Nevill said. "There's a different attitude, just with Coach B. He brings a lot - a lot - to this team. I know all the guys feel really comfortable with him as the coach."
The Utes finished 3-3 on the trip, having played a variety of amateur and professional teams before returning barely three days ago.
Boylen and his players agreed that they enjoyed an important head start on rebuilding the program.
"We had to use the trip to establish a standard of play, a level of toughness, a level of competitiveness," Boylen said. "We're never going to have a tougher trip. . . . We established, to me, a floor - not the ceiling. And the floor is, I think, higher than what they're used to."
Center Luke Nevill and forward Stephen Weigh played well for most of the trip to their native country - "We could have had nine games in nine days, and it wouldn't have bothered me at all," Weigh said - though Boylen brought Nevill off the bench near the end because of a lackluster effort in one of the games.
Guard Johnnie Bryant came off the bench, too, for the final four games - and Boylen has suggested the senior might play a reserve role in his final college season, as well. Bryant said he will do whatever the coach asks, and credited Boylen's intensity with helping the Utes fight through the toughest parts of their journey.
"Coach was stressing mental toughness, and that was an example of mental toughness - fighting through fatigue," he said. "It's really going to help us. . . . We built a good foundation, and made steps in the right direction."