For 23 years, the Athletes in Action basketball team - a collection of former college and pro players united by their Christian beliefs - has been touring the nation's basketball arenas, spreading goodwill, the gospel and a run-and-gun sermon with equal enthusiasm. This year is no exception. Following a road schedule that Moses could appreciate, they'll cram 18 games into 22 days this month.
Stop No. 5 brought them to the Huntsman Center Wednesday night to play the University of Utah. The AIA players delivered their message to the crowd of 9,700 at halftime, then they delivered another one on the court to the Utes. AIA defeated Utah 74-66, exposing the Utes' inexperience for all the world to see.The Utes could only thank, well, heaven that the game was an exhibition contest and won't count on their record. In the meantime, as forward Josh Grant noted, "We've got a lot of work to do; that's for sure."
Amen. Let's see, the Utes' season is now one exhibition game old and Walter Watts is already in the coach's doghouse; Jimmy Soto's redshirt season has been canceled, at least for the moment; the Utes' zone offense and three-point shooting are in critical condition; and nearly half the team is hampered by injuries.
AIA, which routed James Madison and nearly beat Notre Dame earlier in the week, took the lead for good midway through the first half. The Utes, trailing 43-35 at halftime, pulled within two points with eight minutes left in the game, but could get no closer.
Player/Co-Coach Lorenzo Romar, a four-year NBA veteran, delivered 15 assists for the winners. John Smith led all scorers with 18 points. The Utes were led by Josh Grant, who had 16 points, 10 boards, two blocked shots, four steals and just 1 turnover. You don't want to know the rest of the story.
Two things killed the Utes: the zone offense - "We have not practiced against the zone this year," said Utah Coach Rick Majerus. "We can remedy that problem." - and outside shooting, which of course is one way to beat the zone. Anyway you cut it, the Utes couldn't shoot on this night. Standing at the foul line? Try 12 of 21. From the field? How about 44 percent. From behind the three-point line? Would you believe 12 percent (2 of 17).
Of course it might have helped if the Utes hadn't shot from the NBA three-point line. For practice drills, Majerus has had an NBA three-point line installed on the Huntsman court, some four feet farther from the hoop than the collegiate trey line.
"It's there to remind us to spread out our offense in practice - to stay higher and wider," said Grant. "We're not supposed to shoot from there, though."
Many of the Utes did anyway, knowingly or unknowingly. AIA made its key 10-0 run in the first half while the Utes bricked one trey after another.
"We're fatigued," said Majerus. Not to mention injured. Three players didn't bother to suit up for the game because of injuries - Craig Rydalch, Paul Afeaki, Phil Dixon. Two other injured players - M'Kay McGrath and Byron Wilson - played anyway. Down to nine playable players, the Utes are so thin that assistant coaches Jeff Judkins and Kirk Earlywine participate in practice - as players.
Majerus elected to go with an almost entirely new lineup Wednesday: McGrath, a junior college transfer; Wilson and Tyron Tate, a pair of first-year sophomore guards from Chicago; center Larry Cain, a reserve last year; and Grant.
Their newness together showed. 23 turnovers. General confusion, especially on the guardline. Tate made 6 of 7 shots, 12 points, 10 assists - but 10 turnovers. Wilson made 5 of 15 shots, which is probably the result of having practiced three days in the previous 10. Anthony Williams, another JC guard, made 2 of 6 shots.
If the poor play at guard was understandable, it was also alarming enough that Majerus changed his plans about redshirting Soto, a sophomore guard. Thinking Soto would sit out the year, Majerus had him sit out the game. But afterward Majerus said, "I doubt if I'll do that (redshirt) now. (Soto) would've given us a lot tonight. We need help handling the ball."
Soto wasn't the only veteran missing from the lineup. Watts, who averaged 10 points per game last year, began the game on the bench because of his poor defensive play in an intrasquad game last week. He played 22 minutes and had 7 points, 7 boards and 4 turnovers.
"We'll be all right," said Grant. "We just haven't played together."
"I'm not pushing the panic button," said Majerus. "It's going to take time to build this program."