Meditation and visualization get Utes' heads into the game during one of their finest seasons
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In the hours before their regular-season finale this weekend, the Utah Utes will gather in a small room just under the seats of the Huntsman Center, not far from the floor on which they have so dominated opponents over the years, and do what they have been doing before basketball games almost all season long:

Turn off the lights.

Close their eyes.

Relax, and listen.

What coach Ray Giacoletti tells them in those few tranquil and meditative moments has become a sort of secret weapon for a team with a lot of other obvious ones, and seems to have played a significant role in delivering the Utes to one their most surprisingly successful seasons in recent history.

"I think it has made a big difference in everybody's game," forward Bryant Markson says. "I mean, 18-game winning streak? It has to work."

The No. 16 Utes have been using meditation and visualization techniques that are increasingly popular among elite athletes since early in the season, when Giacoletti decided to give them a try after finding success with them during his last season at Eastern Washington - when his Eagles rebounded from a wretched start and two late-season overtime losses to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"I've never believed in it more than last year," he says. "Hopefully, it eases the tension and pressure a little bit."

The coach characteristically downplays the practice, almost sheepishly explaining that it's not a cure-all, just one of the things that goes into building a strong team.

But he hardly apologizes for asking his players to

quietly focus for four or five minutes on three "points of emphasis" before each game, and to envision themselves "doing these three things that we can control" -- especially because that might well have been one of the factors that has helped the Utes streak to a 24-4 record going into their final home game against San Diego State on Saturday.

"It's hard to say" how much it has helped, Giacoletti said. "But I just know, as competitive as this sport is, and as balanced as it is, if it helps one guy, then we're going to take the time to do it."

Succeeding in most stressful of moments has been a hallmark of the Utes this season. They have been all but unassailable during the final minutes of close games, for example, suggesting there is a certain power of positive thinking that Giacoletti has helped them harness.

"It just keeps your mind on things," center Andrew Bogut says.

Initially, though, some of the players were skeptical.

"We all kind of had a little chuckle," guard Tim Drisdom said. "I think we were all just kind of, 'Oh, we're going to meditate now? Lights off?' But we're not going to stop doing it now, I'll tell you that much."

Indeed, the Utes have grown attached to their little ritual.

When Giacoletti seemed to forget about it amid the pre-game bustle at Wyoming last month, for example, the players sought him out to remind him and make sure he still was planning on leading the exercise.

"That's when you start to feel that it might be something that is helpful to some guys," Giacoletti says.

Giacoletti picked up the habit in his last couple of seasons at EWU, where he had become acquainted with Jon Hammermeister, who works in the university's physical education department and as a renowned sport psychologist for the U.S. Ski Team based in Park City.

Hammermeister and Giacoletti began to talk about the team regularly, and Hammermeister would offer suggestions for the meditation sessions based on what the coach told him about how things were going. The two continued their communications after Giacoletti accepted the Utah job last year, and they still speak on the phone once a week.

The men have remained so dedicated to their rapport, in fact, that they conducted one of their recent conversations while Hammermeister was in Germany with the ski team.

"I just talk to him about where we're at, what's going on," Giacoletti said. "He's kind of an outside influence who's unbiased and it helps me help our team be better. If I don't like his suggestions, I don't use them."

But Giacoletti has been willing to try a lot.

He has become noted among the players for his variety of motivational techniques. He has read quotes to the players from introspective coach Phil Jackson, and rallied them to a victory at rival Brigham Young with a pre-game speech that focused on the daring red jacket he was wearing for the first time.

" 'If I have to go out here and wear this red jacket, we damn-sure better win,' " Drisdom recalls him joking.

Meditation and visualization, however, have been the steady features.

The Utes began doing it after a loss at Arizona dropped them to 5-3, and immediately reeled off 18 straight wins before a loss at New Mexico and a victory over BYU last weekend. They already have clinched the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship, and will be the top seed in the league tournament next week at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

"I was kind of surprised," says Markson, who grew up around Los Angeles and remembers hearing about the unorthodox motivational tactics that Jackson used with the NBA's Lakers. "But then the wins started coming, and I was like, 'It's helping.' Those first couple of times, you don't know. You're like, 'Mmmm, I think we're just winning.' But then, as it goes along, and you see everybody's faces -- everybody's relaxed -- and you know it helps."

How, exactly?

Hard to say.

Different players can reap different benefits -- Markson says meditation helps soothe his otherwise frayed pre-game nerves, for instance -- but the results seem to speak for themselves.

"It's probably more of an unmeasurable thing," forward Justin Hawkins says. "I think it probably helps in a way that you don't even really notice. It works unconsciously, I think that's how it works. . . . You see yourself successful, and when you see yourself successful, it gives you more confidence to go out there and do the things you need to do."

mcl@sltrib.com

GETTING A MENTAL EDGE?

The No. 16 Utes have been using meditation and visualization techniques before each game. They involve players relaxing, clearing their minds and envisioning themselves doing the right things on the court. Has it made a difference? The Utes began doing it after a loss at Arizona and immediately reeled off 18 straight wins before a loss at New Mexico. Utah has been particularly strong in the most stressful of moments, excelling during the final minutes of close games.

UTAH UP NEXT: San Diego State at Utah, Saturday, 3 p.m., KJZZ