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Tourney on minds of Utah Jazz players

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 12:39 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Most Beehive State basketball fans are anxiously doing a countdown for tonight's NCAA Tournament games featuring BYU and Utah State.

But one guy in Utah is much more interested in the team that's matched up against Old Dominion this morning.

Butler's first-round game against the Monarchs tips off during the Jazz's usual practice time, but here's guessing the school's most famous former player will find a way to watch his old team.

"It'll be cool to see how they do as a fan," Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward said.

Hayward, of course, became the darling of the NCAA Tournament in 2010 — in part for what he did with No. 5 seed Butler in the Sweet 16 (beating No. 1 Syracuse) and in the Elite Eight (downing Kansas State) at EnergySolutions Arena.

The Indiana hero also took his Bulldogs to the NCAA title game — where they lost to Duke when his half-court buzzer-shot was just off — in his hometown of Indianapolis.

Now that March Madness is upon us, Hayward admits it'd be tough to not be a bit envious of his old teammates playing in the Big Dance.

"I think anytime you move on from a level of play, you miss the previous level," Hayward said. "When high school basketball was going on, I missed that as well — high school state finals.

"It's an exciting time. It'll be fun (today)."

Hayward's fun will not include following his bracket. He didn't fill one out.

UCLA product Earl Watson made no secret which team he feels has a better chance of making it out of the Southeast Region and to the championship game.

"I don't know about Butler," he said with a smile, "but it will be UCLA."

Hayward laughed, and said the teammate trash-talking has actually been low this season. And he'll be glued into the tourney no matter what happens this morning.

"I'm definitely going to pay attention, because I love basketball," Hayward said. "You can't get anything better than the NCAA Tournament."

OLD AL IS BACK: Al Jefferson isn't the same player that Kurt Rambis coached last season with the Timberwolves. Jefferson averaged 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but wasn't 100 percent. He was still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered during the 2008-09 season.

The Timberwolves coach said there's a noticeable difference with how Jefferson (18.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg) looks now compared to last season.

"Last year, he never regained his pop," Rambis said. "He never did, and (now) you can clearly see it — just the way that he runs and moves and jumps and how quick he is and how explosive he is. He's back to the old Al Jefferson and he never had that last year."

COMING SOON?: Paul Millsap hopes that the combination of sitting out a fifth game in a row and having a few days off before the Jazz's next outing will allow him to "let it heal more." Utah's starting power forward believes he'll be able to play Sunday in Houston.

"After (Wednesday's) game, I've got a few days off," Millsap said. "Rest it, get a few practices in and be ready to go next game."

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