AUSTIN, Texas - The plane ride from Salt Lake City to Melbourne, Australia, took about 21 hours, yet the return trip to the Utah campus last spring for newly hired basketball coach Ray Giacoletti seemed a lot shorter.
"The trip back," Giacoletti recalled yesterday, "was a good trip knowing that Andrew was going to come back."
Andrew Bogut's decision to return for his sophomore year with the Utes proved not only beneficial to a program looking to continue the tradition established under ex-coach Rick Majerus, but also to the 7-foot center.
The sixth-seeded, 29-5 Utes, one year removed from a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament a few months after Majerus resigned for health reasons, will meet second-seeded Kentucky (27-5) in the second Austin Regional semifinal here today at the Erwin Center.
Top-seeded Duke (27-5) will play fifth-seeded Michigan State (24-6) in the first semifinal.
Utah is still playing this season mostly because of Bogut, who has transformed himself from a second-team all-conference player in the Mountain West to an Associated Press first-team All-American. Bogut, 20, received more votes than any other player and is the favorite to be named national Player of the Year.
More significantly, he could become the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft should he decide to leave Utah.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bogut actually believes that the competition he goes against is more skilled than he is. It makes him play harder than most, whether it's against another college kid with a bigger reputation or a grizzled veteran from Greece in an opening-round Olympic game.
"I'm not intimidated, really," Bogut said yesterday. "I was intimidated as a kid. It's a challenge going against players that are better than me. It's part of the game. I love doing it."
Giacoletti recalled watched Bogut's first Olympic game with the Australian team last summer in Athens.
"In the Olympics, you saw a 19-year-old that had toughness," said Giacoletti. "They played the Greeks in a hostile environment with 12,000 people jammed in this little gym. It was crazy. The 30-year-old Greek center just chucked Andrew in the chest. He made a statement by chucking him back and ended up having a great tournament."
The player whom Majerus hoped would bring the Utes back to national prominence has done just that, with Giacoletti enjoying the show.
"I think he's as skilled a big guy as I've ever seen," said Giacoletti. "Most times, when people think of international players, they think they're skilled, but soft. Andrew is not soft. He's got a Croatian background. He's got great toughness. You put that combination together and you end up with the best player in college basketball."
Bogut's overall numbers are solid, though not exactly spectacular: a 20.4-point scoring average to go along with 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.4 blocks per game. He has had some monster games - including 28 points and 14 rebounds against Coppin State - but where he stands out is in his ability to dominate without scoring.
Take Utah's 67-58 win over Oklahoma in the second round Saturday in Tucson, Ariz. The Sooners spent most of the game double- and triple-teaming Bogut, who was content to pass to open teammates for easy baskets. Bogut finished with only 10 points, tying his season low, but he had 11 rebounds and a career-high seven assists.
"He can shoot with both hands and pass with both hands ... He's kind of like (former Portland Trail Blazer) Arvydas Sabonis. He's an international player who really understands how to play," said Kentucky associate head coach David Hobbs. "They do a really good job of using him. He's the focal point of their offense."
Said Utah guard Tim Drisdom: "A lot of people ask, `How do you stop Andrew Bogut?' My response is, `Stop him from doing what? You can stop him from scoring, but can you stop him from passing or crashing the boards? I think you've got to pick your poison."
Bogut credits much of his success to the years he spent at the Australian Institute of Sports, which has a long history of developing golfers and tennis players, but not many basketball players. Along with watching highlight tapes from NBA games that were on local television every Saturday, his work ethic came early.
"It puts you in a situation where you're playing basketball every day," said Bogut, whose parents also hired a fellow Croat, Sinisa Markovic, a former European professional player, as their son's personal coach for 2 1/2 hours each day. "It taught me the professionalism that comes with the game."
Duke guard J.J. Redick got his first look at Bogut two years ago when they were playing in the junior world championships, in which Bogut led Australia to the gold medal and was named the tournament's MVP. Redick remembers Bogut's dark hair was much longer and tinged with blonde streaks, but he played the game just as he does now.
"He played so hard. He had this winner's attitude," said Redick. "You just had to respect the guy. I didn't know he was going to Utah. I didn't realize he was going to be as good as he is now."
Very few did.