When guard Allen Crabbe chose California over Utah a year and a half ago, the coveted Los Angeles native's decision didn't come down to a preference in campuses, coaching or available playing time.
"From what he told us, a big reason for his decision was because Cal plays in the Pac-10," Utah coach Jim Boylen said by phone. "I'm not saying anything negative about California because I like what they're doing, but how would he have felt if that wasn't there? Would he have come here? I don't know, but it sure seemed like that was a big part of his decision."
Utah's upcoming move to the Pac-10 in 2011 should ensure that the Utes never again lose a recruit because of the perception that they play in a second-tier conference. Although the upper half of the Mountain West out-performed the Pac-10 last season and may be primed to do so again next year, the Pac-10's pedigree, TV revenue and exposure will benefit Utah's program in the long run.
Already Boylen has begun recruiting as though Utah's status has improved. Whereas Utah typically has succeeded in the past by developing raw yet talented projects into high-caliber players, Boylen is gambling he'll now be able to land higher-profile prospects mature enough to make an immediate impact.
"In the Pac-10, you get more of a ready-made freshman, a guy who's ready to step in and play," Boylen said. "The other thing too that sticks out is the number of pros from their league as compared to ours. You better recruit some guys that have a chance to be a pro to compete in their league."
It's important for Boylen to succeed on the recruiting trail because the program looked anything but Pac-10-ready in the former Michigan State assistant's third season in Salt Lake City. The Utes staggered through a 14-17 season that included losses to Idaho and Seattle, a major step backward after Boylen had signed a lucrative five-year contract extension the previous spring in the wake of a surprise NCAA tournament berth.
Despite five players leaving the program because of disciplinary issues, a lack of playing time or an inability to get along with the coaches, Boylen is cautiously optimistic about the future. Seven-foot-3 shot blocker David Foster, fellow 7-footer Jason Washburn and 6-foot-7 Jay Watkins anchor a strong frontcourt. And Boylen signed a seven-man recruiting class featuring four junior college prospects to address a glaring lack of speed and quickness at guard.
A roster laden with upperclassmen should be competitive in Utah's final Mountain West campaign next season and perhaps in its first year in the Pac-10 as well. But where Boylen's tenure will be judged is by his 2012 recruiting class. Boylen will have at least five scholarships to fill that year, partially blind luck and partially a result of the coaching staff having an inkling that a move to the Pac-10 could be imminent.
"I don't want to say we knew this was coming, but we had a feeling that there was going to be a shakeup and we planned accordingly," Boylen said. "One of our goals was to have a good team going into the league, and I think we're going to have that. And then if we have five scholarships for 2010 or 2011, it's too late right now to get involved with [Pac-10-level] players. So it does work out well to have 18 months to recruit."
Those 18 months will be the ultimate test to Boylen's theory that Utah can now attract a higher-caliber recruit.
He'll still attract prospects because of Utah's winning tradition or his rugged coaching style, but now he'll also be able to sell Los Angeles-area recruits on returning home to play UCLA or USC each year and competing against the top programs in the West.
"Going to the Pac-10 raises the profile of our program nationally," Boylen said. "It gives us some separation from that mid-major title. We've recruited against the Pac-10, the Big 12 and the Big Ten since we got here and we've gotten some of the kids, but when we haven't, it usually comes down to that we're not in the Pac-10 or not in the Big 12. Maybe the biggest benefit of this is we're on an even playing field now."