Freshman point guard Brandon Taylor had played a limited role the Utah basketball team through most of the pre-season, until a 62-53 home win over SMU on December 18.
While the Utes would go on to lose their next game to Cal State Northridge, the second run at SMU was a critical one for the Utes, proving they could make the necessary adjustments against a repeat opponent after a loss.
The long, athletic SMU team posed a challenge to the Utes the first time around, and it was fair to question how the Utes might counter the next time.
What nobody anticipated was that two freshmen would be the answer, as fellow freshman and shooting guard Justin Seymour had a team-high 11 points, and Taylor's key 10 point contribution to carry the Utes to a 62-53 victory.
With starting point guard Glen Dean in foul trouble, and the Utes struggling to score, Taylor seemed an unlikely substitute, having played a total of 49 minutes all season long with an average of 6.1 minutes per game.
Instead, Taylor provided just the spark the Utes needed, having stayed mentally prepared in his limited role.
"Coach called my number, and I was just ready. I haven't played a lot of minutes, but I knew that my time would come, and that my team would be depending on me in that situation," Taylor said. "I just kept my nose down in practice, tried to get better and stay mentally strong. I'm a freshman, so I know I have to bide my time, but it can be hard sometimes."
A difficult transition for any freshman who struggles for playing time after a highly successful prep career, Taylor has taken a mature approach to the situation.
"I know that I can help the team and contribute, mostly on defense. So I don't lose confidence," he said. "It's just part of being there for my teammates, and as a freshman it just means adjusting to a different role on the team."
Following the SMU game, head coach Larry Krystkowiak commented on Taylor's performance, and limited playing situation.
"We needed Brandon to step in, and he came in did that. He gave us the lift that we needed at the time, especially on defense. Credit him because he's been working hard through some things in practice, and he never stopped," Krystkowiak said. "It just shows that every player has a role, whether that's a smaller or larger role, but when his time comes, it's key. He stayed ready, and came in and did a great job."
Despite some difficulties and obstacles, for Taylor, keeping a positive attitude and maintaining a great work ethic isn't something he has to work on - it's just who he is. The struggle in this instance isn't at all mental, or a struggle to avoid feeling sorry for oneself, it's simply about maintaining a competitive edge without the benefit of game competition.
"I never get down. I'm not the kind of player to really do that, or to stop working hard or anything like that. I just had to keep working on some things in practice versus a game, but it was a chance to just learn and improve," Taylor recalled. "Sometimes that's harder in practice than having to adjust in a game situation, but it was never a negative situation for me, and I knew it was something I was going to come out of with effort, and become a better player for it."
Willing to take that approach, Taylor worked his way through practices, wanting improvement not only for himself, but for the betterment of the team.
"Part of it, I think was just caring about this team so much. If there's a place where I see I could maybe help the team, I was all about that. That's what I wanted to do," he said. "In the game I saw that opportunity to step in and give the team a spark when we needed it, especially on defense."
Indeed, it was Taylor's defensive effort in the SMU game that was the catalyst both for his performance, as well as the team's turn-around in the contest.
"I don't ever think about offense. That's something this team is learning not to do, as a whole. I just thought I could go in and get some stops, because defense is something we've all been focusing on since day one of the season," Taylor recalled. "I've especially working on a defensive mind-set, and I felt like that was paying off lately. I knew if I could come in and make something happen defensively, it would give us a chance, or that it might create opportunities the other way."
Sure enough, as soon as Taylor entered the game, he intercepted an SMU pass just past mid-court, allowing for an easy layup the other way. In short order, Taylor tallied another steal, and another subsequent layup for a quick easy points. The series proved to be a key momentum swing for the Utes, having hit a scoring drought, and failing to get stops.
"As soon as I got that first steal, and I could see I was going to get the layup, I knew it was going to be good out there. I was confident and relaxed because I was doing what I do best, which is play defense," Taylor stated. "When I do that it, it settles me down, it's natural. I'm not out there thinking, just playing and reacting on defense. It just goes to prove everything [Krystkowiak] has been telling us all this time. If we play hard-nosed defense, everything will else will come. Everything is easier."
That performance helped to buoy Taylor's confidence, never lacking, but helps to maintain it, prognosticating a shortage of minutes heading into conference play in just a few short days.
"I'm competitive, and I want to be out on the court, of course. But I've accepted what my role is on this team right now, and I understand that its as important as the role [our starters] have. My contributions are different than theirs, but when it comes down to it, it takes everyone fulfilling their roles," Taylor said. "This just kind of helped me know I can do it when coach calls my number, and that the work I did in practice was worth it, that it pays off. I don't see myself letting up, but it can be hard keeping it up day after day, so this will stay with me until next time I'm needed."