In some ways, coach Rick Majerus' absence from the team for last year's stretch run was nothing new for Utah. In 15 years with the Utes, Majerus failed to finish three seasons because of health issues.
But this is different. Majerus is not coming back. After interim coach Kerry Rupp led the Utes into the NCAA tournament, Ray Giacoletti was hired from Eastern Washington to replace Rupp -- and Majerus.
Majerus left the Utes in late January after experiencing chest pains and decided a few weeks later that he would not return to the school. Instead, he will work as an ESPN analyst.
Giacoletti calls the move to Utah "an unbelievable opportunity." It's also a big responsibility, trying to maintain a program that reached the NCAA tournament 11 times under Majerus and played for the national championship in 1998.
"I never dreamed I'd have this chance," said Giacoletti, whose Eastern Washington Eagles made a breakthrough visit to the NCAA tournament in '04.
Giacoletti inherits some holes with the graduation of guard Nick Jacobson and center Tim Frost, but he has the ingredients to win a Mountain West Conference championship after last year's Utes went 24-9 and won the MWC tournament title.
FRONTCOURTThe biggest issue for the Utes at the time of Giacoletti's hiring was whether or not 7- footer Andrew Bogut would return for his sophomore season or launch a pro career in the NBA or Europe. After Giacoletti visited the player and his family in Australia, Bogut decided to come back to Utah, a huge bonus for the new coaching staff. Bogut, who played for Australia in the Olympic Games, averaged 12.5 points and 9.9 rebounds as a freshman and should become a dominant player in the MWC. The absence of Frost will put more pressure on Bogut, however.
The Utes will need fellow Australian 7-footer Luke Nevill to contribute as a freshman, or hope that 6-foot-11 junior Chris Jackson has improved considerably. A back injury sidelined Jackson for the final 10 games of last season. Before that, he had appeared in 20 games and played an average of 12.5 minutes.
Forward Justin Hawkins showed athletic ability and averaged 5.3 points as a freshman, but Bryant Markson shot only 35.3 percent from the field while playing 12.0 minutes per game as a sophomore. Sophomore Jonas Langvad is another possibility up front.
BACKCOURTBesides retaining Bogut, Giacoletti received another bonus when guard Marc Jackson returned to the program. Jackson had given up basketball after the '02-03 season, basically because he no longer wanted to play for the demanding Majerus. He remained enrolled at the school and, while he forfeited a year of eligibility by sitting out, he was welcomed back for his senior season by Giacoletti, who praised Jackson's "toughness and passion for the game." Jackson averaged 13.1 points in conference play as a sixth man two years ago.
He will share the point guard position with Tim Drisdom, who ran the club reasonably well but was guilty of some late-game breakdowns -- most notably in a home loss to Air Force and an NCAA tournament defeat against Boston College. Replacing Jacobson will be difficult. He was the team leader, and the Utes relied heavily on him offensively. When Jacobson's shot was off, Utah usually lost. It was that simple. Richard Chaney will have to do more scoring after averaging 9.5 points and shooting 49.4 percent.
FINAL ANALYSISUtah's homecourt advantage and defensive ability were well-established under Majerus and should be extended by Giacoletti. The Utes were 192-14 at home in the Majerus era, including 15-1 last season.
Partly because of a deliberate offensive style, Utah ranked fifth in the country in scoring defense (57.4). The Utes also were fifth in rebounding margin (7.4), thanks to the opportunities created by their opponents' 41.4-percent shooting.
Giacoletti's biggest challenge will be to develop leadership, since Jackson is the only senior on the roster. The Utes have flexibility with athletes such as Hawkins, Chaney and Markson, but they need to develop some inside players to complement Bogut. If they can, everything suggests Giacoletti will extend Utah's recent tradition of NCAA tournament appearances.