- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

MIAMI (AP) - On the day Jim Boylen became Utah’s basketball coach, four words made Utes guard Lawrence Borha an immediate believer.

It was March 2007, at the news conference to announce Boylen’s hiring, a few days after Utah finished its worst season in a quarter-century. Someone asked about bringing in his own players, and Boylen was lightning-quick with his reply.

“Those are my players,” Boylen said, nodding at the Utes who were in the room.

With that, Borha was sold.

“I never forgot,” Borha said.

Flash forward two years: Boylen and the Utes are champions of the Mountain West Conference and in the NCAA tournament, a turnaround that few outside of Salt Lake City probably envisioned happening so soon.

“He did his work, believed in us, thought we could win,” Borha said. “That’s when I knew we were going to be a good team.”

The quest to be a great team starts Friday in Miami, where fifth-seeded Utah (24-9) plays 12th-seeded Arizona (19-13) in a first-round South regional matchup. The Utes haven’t won a tournament game since 2005, and there’s no shortage of bracket experts saying it’s a game where the higher seed is ripe for an upset.

Boylen doesn’t mind whatsoever.

“I hope they keep pouring it on,” Boylen said Wednesday. “We’ve been facing that all year. People look at our schedule and said, ‘Holy smokes, you’re nuts.’ But we won 24 games with our schedule. Our RPI was around the top 10 all year. So my kids have been through it all now. They’re battle-hardened. They’re sick of being picked on, sick of being belittled.”

In other words, they’ve taken on the personality of their coach.

The casual fan might not know much about Boylen, since Utah games aren’t exactly must-see-TV on the college viewing landscape. Hardcore basketball types, though, know plenty about him _ maybe just from some of the guys he’s worked under and with in his career.

Boylen was a star at Maine in the mid-1980s, finishing second to Reggie Lewis for the North Atlantic Conference’s player of the year award in 1987. From there, he was a graduate assistant for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State, sharing a cramped apartment with two other young coaches named Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, both of whom went on to win a few games of their own.

He worked his way from the Houston Rockets’ video room to their assistant-coaching staff under Rudy Tomjanovich, being part of two NBA championships there. Eventually he returned to Michigan State to be on Izzo’s staff, and finally _ after years of waiting and missing out for jobs, most notably at Texas A&M; and with the Orlando Magic _ Utah picked him to be a head coach.

“When Coach came along, he introduced a new system,” said Luke Nevill, Utah’s 7-foot-2 center from Australia. “And last year, you know, it was difficult to kind of get used to it. But we took last year kind of as rebuilding, growing. We had a great summer together. We came out this year ready to go and ready to make a difference, make an imprint in the Mountain West. And we did it.”

So this week, the Utes get a reward.

It’s spring break at Utah, and with no classes to worry about, Boylen brought the Utes to Miami on Tuesday night _ making them the first of the eight teams picked to play in South Florida on Friday to arrive. They had a good practice Wednesday morning, then changed into warm-weather attire and hit the tourist-friendly Coconut Grove section of town for a leisurely lunch.

A happy team, Boylen hopes, is a relaxed team.

And a relaxed team, he thinks, might fare a bit better in the NCAAs.

“Only three of the guys on my team, plus me have been there before,” Boylen said. “So I wanted to get rid of that ooh-aah feeling.”

After nearly 2,000 games as a coach, Boylen had experienced almost everything.

But when the Utes _ who started their year with a loss to Division II Southwest Baptist _ beat San Diego State 52-50 for the Mountain West tournament title, Boylen began to cry.

Twice, actually.

“To see them grow, to see them have success, we were picked fourth by some people and fifth by other people in our conference,” Boylen said. “But we just kept believing. To see those guys win the league, the toughest the league has ever been with five teams winning at least 20 games, then to win the conference tournament … my guys were just focused and tough. It was awesome.”

And it’s not over yet, either. His guys have at least one game left.

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