It didn't start pretty, but it ended well. The Utes' new-look team took a chunk of the first half of Friday's exhibition win over Adams State to gel together, which is not surprising given the team returned only one starter, Shawn Glover who only started 13 games last season.
The Utes came out with the 84-74 victory on the strength of two JUCO newcomers. Will Clyburn notched a double-double in his first Division I game with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Josh Watkins, the Utes' new point guard, started slow but made a big push in the second half. Watkins finished the first half with eight points, and then caught on fire in the second and chipped in 14 to finish the night with 22 points.
With so many new faces trying to adjust to a new system, the Utes needed the exhibition in front of a live crowd and "underneath the lights," as head coach Jim Boylen explained. "I thought we struggled a little bit in the first half. I thought we all wanted to do it, which I think new teams will do sometimes," said Boylen.
Division II Adams State was scrappy and gave the Utes all they could handle, especially in the first half. Immediately following the game, Ute center Jason Washburn recognized the team's need to finish games. "We've got to learn how to finish games, but we got a glimpse of how good this team can be," said Washburn. "That's a tough team, down by 14 they never gave up. We've got to scrap; we've got to learn how to finish games, right up to the last five seconds. We can't let that happen. When we play [a higher level of competition], things like that are going to come back to bite us."
Although the Utes came away with a win, Boylen maintains that the team is more concerned with learning who they are and using real-life game situations to coach to in order to improve. As such, at this point, Coach Boylen was happy to put a team out on the floor, watch and learn.
After a slow first half where Utah struggled to build a four point lead, the coaching staff made several adjustments to get its new pers to share the ball. After halftime, the Utes abandoned their motion offense, opting instead for a pick-and-roll-type game, which was much more effective. The Utes also emphasized sharing the ball, and spreading the scoring out more in the second half. The team and coaches alike agreed that the offense rolled when making that extra pass, creating opportunities for their teammates.
"I think we made it a point of emphasis in the second half to punch the ball into the post more and share the ball," said Boylen. "I think that was the difference in the game."
The need to improve rebounding and transition defense were other key takeaways from the game for Coach Boylen. Utah had trouble at times with the smaller, quicker players from Adams State, who would send four to crash the boards in order to generate fast break opportunities. Adams State succeeded in that goal Friday, tallying 12 points off the break.
"I thought their speed and quickness might hurt us going in, and it did," Boylen admitted. "They ran out on us in transition. We've made offensive rebounding a point of emphasis."
For all that happened, Coach Boylen afterward indicated his gratefulness for the competition and a closer than perhaps was expected game out of Adams State, and gave a great deal of credit to their team and effort. "It may sound coach-ish, or like a cliché, but honestly, if we'd won by 40 [points], I don't think we'd have gotten as much out of it," said Boylen.
Coach Boylen was encouraged, almost more than anything else on the night, by the fact that Utah made 39 trips to the free throw line Friday. For Boylen, it is indicative of a team attitude, or mindset, and one it is one he wants badly to instill in this team.
"I love the fact we shot 39 free throws. It shows an aggressive style of play; when we go more to the board, run the ball, drive the ball; more free throws." Boylen explained.
For the coaching staff, one of the big positives is the upgrade in personnel they have to work with. "We have a lot to coach to and learn from but what stands out to me is we've elevated our talent level overall and I'm very encouraged by our talent level," said Boylen.
Perhaps more than any statistic or aspect of the game is that fact that this team is self-aware, making no excuses about where their shortcomings lie, and what aspects of the game need improvement. In post-game comments, Washburn, Jiggy Watkins, and Clyburn all immediately addressed what could be better, and afterward found a way to mix in the positives.
"It's just a work in progress, like coach always says. I made a lot of mistakes tonight and for me, I think I needed this exhibition, to be out here under the lights. We need to improve. We just need to come in, work hard and make progress every day," said Watkins.
Utah opens regular season play next Friday in the Huntsman center against Grand Canyon.