MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There is hope in the Utah Jazz locker room right now.
It’s just not about this NBA season. Or this particular team.
With the NCAA tournament tipping off this week, the majority of Jazz players are holding out hope that their old college programs will see some success over the next few days and weeks.
If nothing else, March Madness livens up the chatter between teammates in a locker room that needs all the help it can get to keep spirits up during a rough stretch of 10 losses in 11 games.
Want to know who’s going to win it all?
You’ll need multiple brackets for all of the answers you’ll get from Jazz players. Depending on who you ask, the 2014 NCAA champion will come from Colorado, North Carolina or somewhere in between.
“You can never go wrong betting on the blue,” Jazz forward Marvin Williams said.
That’d be North Carolina's baby blue, by the way.
Well, unless you ask Trey Burke. He’ll be carrying the torch for his Michigan maize and blue.
“They’re having a great season,” Burke said of his Wolverines, who lost in the 2013 NCAA title game. “I just wish those guys the best of luck and hopefully they make a run like last year.”
And what about that Jayhawk blue?
“Just because they’re Kansas, I’ve got them going to the Final Four,” Jazz guard Brandon Rush said.
And Arizona’s got some blue in its color scheme, right?
“We feel good,” Jazz forward Richard Jefferson said, speaking on behalf of the U. of A.
Then again, so do John Lucas III (Oklahoma State), Alec Burks (Colorado), Diante Garrett (Iowa State) and Malcolm Thomas (San Diego State), who disagree with the whole safe-betting-on-blue theme.
A handful of players don't have dogs in this year's college fight, including Gordon Hayward (Butler), Derrick Favors (Georgia Tech), Jeremy Evans (Western Kentucky), Ian Clark (Belmont) and non-college guys Rudy Gobert and Andris Biedrins.
While overhearing locker room interviews, Jazz PR director Jonathan Rinehart couldn't help but chime in about a perceived injustice to his alma mater, 25th-ranked SMU, which didn't get its NCAA ticket punched.
"How are you a Top 25 team in the U.S. and not make the field of 68?" Rinehart asked, receiving no pity.
Then there’s Enes Kanter, who spent a year at the University of Kentucky (2010-11) but was unable to play due to eligibility issues. Asked about the Wildcats’ NCAA hopes, he smiled and responded, “Who are they playing?”
— Enes Kanter: Kentucky (8) vs. Kansas State (9)
Told about the Wildcats’ opponent, Kanter smiled and said, “I’m hoping they’re going to win.”
Kanter continued to speak optimistically while shaking his head.
“I hope so,” he said, his words contradicting his humorous body language. “I’m hoping so.”
— Trey Burke: Michigan (2) vs. Wofford (15)
To his credit, Burke knew who last year’s runners-up are playing: the Terriers.
“I haven’t really looked at the whole bracket,” Burke said. “But it’s March, so every team’s going to bring it. They should be ready.”
Burke, who’s averaging 12.6 points and 5.3 assists his rookie season, doesn’t have second thoughts about leaving college after his sophomore year. But he admitted this is an extra fun time to be in school.
“Obviously, you miss those times,” he said. “I’m sure everybody in the locker room misses being in the tournament and in college.”
— Brandon Rush: Kansas (2) vs. Eastern Kentucky (15)
This 2008 NCAA champion, like Kanter, admitted that he hadn’t scouted out his school’s future opponents, but that didn’t keep him from being confident in the Jayhawks’ chances.
So, Rush has certainly reminded teammates about his team’s success in the tournament, right?
“Not really?” he said. “Some of these guys are young.”
“And,” Jefferson said, interrupting from the next locker over, “some of us don’t give a (bleep).”
“That too,” Rush added, laughing. “It was a good experience, though.”
— Richard Jefferson: Arizona (1) vs. Weber State (16)
It wasn’t quite as good of an experience for Jefferson, whose Arizona team lost in the 2001 NCAA championship game. Still an ardent follower of the Wildcats, the Jazz forward dismissed his school’s two recent losses in Pac-12 play.
“We lost to Oregon, who’s in the tournament, and we lost to UCLA in the conference championship. We feel confident,” Jefferson said. “It’s not like we lost to some of the bum teams they (Kansas) lost to. We lost to tournament teams.”
And Jefferson’s message to Weber State, his No. 1-seeded team’s first opponent?
“We wish you the best,” he said. “Weber State, man. You know, everybody’s got a chance. Everybody has a chance. Never disrespect an opponent no matter how great or how small. It’s going to be a good game.”
— Diante Garrett: Iowa State (3) vs. N. Carolina Central (14)
Garrett is looking forward to filling out his bracket.
“I’m going with Iowa State,” he said. “I’m still going to stick with them.”
And not just because his former coach, Fred Hoiberg, whom he keeps in touch with every couple of months, has one of the best nicknames in the business.
“They look like they have a good path where they need to get to the Final Four,” Garrett said. “I think the Mayor will get them there. Yeah, I think so. I’ve got confidence in my guys.”
— Malcolm Thomas: San Diego State (4) vs. New Mexico State (13)
The Jazz power forward knows his Aztecs don’t get a ton of respect, but he’s pulling for this team that lost to New Mexico in the MWC championship but won at Kansas.
“That,” Jefferson said, “was a bad loss for Kansas.”
“I feel like after a couple of bad losses that they had people kind of forgot about them and felt like they weren’t really contenders,” Kawhi Leonard’s former teammate said. “But I feel like they’re pretty good. I feel like they’re going to shock people.”
— Alec Burks: Colorado (8) vs. Pittsburgh (9)
This Jazz guard can give you a dark horse tip.
“I’m not going to fill out a bracket, but I pick them (the Buffaloes) to win it every year,” Burks said. “I’ve got to support them.”
Burks laughed when talking about Colorado’s recent trips to the NCAA. He didn’t get to play in the tournament as a freshman or sophomore before leaving for the NBA in 2011, but the Buffs have been invited the past three years.
“Ever since I left, they’re better without me,” he said, laughing. “I wish the best for them.”
— John Lucas III: Oklahoma State (9) vs. Gonzaga (8)
If they get by the Zags, Lucas’ Cowboys will take on Jefferson’s Wildcats or the Weber State Wildcats in the second round.
“I feel real good. I think they got a chance. I like the way the bracket’s set up for them,” Lucas said. “They’ve got to come in there and play, though. Any given day, a team can come out and get hot on you.”
Lucas is realistic in his support.
“I’m going to fill two (brackets) out,” he said. “I’ve got one with them (OSU) going all the way and then I’ve got one Sweet 16.”
— Marvin Williams: North Carolina (6) vs. Providence (11)
Williams won the 2005 NCAA title with N.C. and then bolted for the NBA after his freshman season, and he believes the Tar Heels should be the winners every spring.
“Of course. I always fill out one bracket with Carolina winning it all,” he said. With a smile, he added that he has a Lucas-like back-up plan. “And I always fill out one that’s a little (smarter).”
Williams is excited but nervous that North Carolina will play Providence, a school he knows hasn’t been in the tournament for a decade. “I’m praying my boys pull through, but you never know,” he said. “Providence had a great year this year. It’ll be a good game.”
Probably smart for guys from North Carolina, a school eliminated by Weber State 15 years ago, to be weary of the potential Cinderella stories.
“Anytime those smaller schools get in it’s exciting for those guys, an exciting time for the coaching staff, the university. You’ve got to be happy for them, definitely,” he said.
“It’s not always the most fun to play those schools because sometimes a school with a bigger name may take it for granted and then you see a George Mason in the Final Four like they were a few years ago. ... If you’re playing, you’ve got to play like it’s your last game because it really could be.”
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