Anyway, where was he? Oh, yes. Before he was so rudely interrupted by a clogged heart last year, Rick Majerus was just beginning his coaching tenure at the University of Utah. Now he's back to try again, picking up right where he left off. He's zinging one-liners, jumping all over Josh Grant and Walter Watts, preaching the gospel of academics and hard play, working long, non-stop hours and of course poor-mouthing the Utes. To listen to Majerus, you'd think the Utes won't win a single game this year.
The Utes have their problems, all right. For one thing, four players sat out all of last season, and another player missed most of it. The Utes' four prep recruits are sitting out this season, three as Prop. 48 cases. Utah has only one senior and five returning lettermen. Four of the team's top five guards are freshmen or sophomores. Eight of the team's 15 players have never played major college basketball. Five players have been injured this fall, which has curtailed Utah's practice schedule.Still, one suspects that somehow Majerus will make the Utes a winner this season on the strength of his own will, intensity and technical expertise. After all, Majerus, who has never coached a losing team, took a vastly undertalented, undermanned club last year to a 4-2 start, beating Washington and nearly knocking off Purdue. That's as far as he got. Majerus underwent open heart surgery in December and was sidelined the remainder of the season. The Utes, under assistant coach Joe Cravens, finished 16-14.
Now Majerus is back and starting over, a few days away from Saturday night's 1990-91 season opener against Cal-Davis. Predictably, he downplays the prospects for the season, citing all the aforementioned reasons and the graduation loss of point guard Tommy Connor. "I think we will be good," he says. "We just need another recruiting class."
Majerus will build his club around primarily one player: Grant. A year ago Grant, a versatile 6-9 junior, averaged 16.5 points and 7 rebounds a game, made 36 of 90 treys, and shot 51 percent from the field and 78 percent from the foul line, both as a starter and a sixth man. Naturally, Majerus is drooling over this kid, right?"I don't know if I'll have another heart attack," says the coach, "but if I do Josh Grant will give it to me. He's the biggest pacifist I've ever seen. He's a nice kid. You want him for a son. You just don't want him if World War III breaks out." Majerus continues: "I had a lot of trouble with Josh last year. I'd tell him, look at Tommy Connor. He's white, you're white. He's Mormon, you're Mormon. He's an A student, you're an A student. So why am I yelling at you and not Tommy Connor?"
On the other hand, Majerus knows Grant's gifts well: "He's a multi-faceted player, and we are going to have to devise creative ways to use him best." He plans to use Grant in the low post, high post and on the perimeter, and wants him to improve his rebounding and defending - and possibly sweep the Huntsman Center after games.
The Utes' other big man was expected to be Watts, a 6-foot-8 senior who averaged 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a year ago. But he was relegated to reserve duty in the two exhibition games, and Majerus, a fellow heavyweight, cuts him little slack: "Walter's weight depends on how he did in the buffet line that day," says the coach. "If he doesn't get to 262 he won't play." Watts, who once weighed 319, is down to 260. He's getting up and down the court like never before, and he no longer has to beg for a rest every three minutes, as he once did. But Majerus says, "He's still one year away."
The team's other veterans are sophomores Jimmy Soto and Larry Cain, junior Craig Rydalch and redshirt freshman Phil Dixon. At 5-8, Soto has the team's highest vertical leap (34 inches), and last year dazzled fans and opponents with his fearless drives through traffic to the glass for layups. The Utes would prefer that he play his more natural position, point guard, but he spent most of last season at the off-guard spot. He'll play both positions this year. Soto and Rydalch, a 6-3 swingman, averaged five points per game last year. Rydalch gives the Utes another long-distance shooter, but he's recovering from surgery. If Majerus thinks Watts is too heavy, he thinks his other center, Cain, is too thin and "a year away," but Cain has been starting ahead of Watts.
Dixon averaged 10 points through the first six games last season, but then fell through a window and cut his lower left leg (and a major nerve). Dixon, a promising talent, still isn't fully ready to play (he can't push off his left foot laterally and his ankle swells up regularly). "Next year," says Majerus. "I look at him as a valuable resource for four years. I'm not going to jeopardize him or us with impatience. He'll practice one day, then sit out a day or two. He'll play one game, then maybe sit out the next."
The rest of Majerus' team is a mixed collection of transfers, Prop. 48 sophomores and redshirts. With all the new faces around, perhaps introductions are in order. Here are some of the key newcomers:
- M'Kay McGrath, 6-5, jr., forward. A straight-A, pre-med student who earned JC All-America honors for top-ranked Mesa Community College last year, McGrath is a scrappy, hard-nosed type, and Majerus is in love. "When Tommy left I got another guy like that - M'Kay McGrath," says Majerus. " ... I don't like him, I love him. He does one thing: He plays hard."
- Tyrone Tate 6-0, soph., point guard. Explosive and quick, Tate is a good penetrator, passer, scorer and developing defender. He averaged 25 points and 10 assists per game as a high school senior and was named Chicago Co-Player of the Year. He sat out last season as a Prop. 48. Majerus calls him "a poor man's Tim Hardaway."
- Byron Wilson, 6-3, soph., off-guard. Like Tate, Wilson possesses great athletic ability. Majerus sees him as a scorer - both driving and shooting from outside. An all-state Indiana prep, he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists per game as a senior. He's also a tremendous leaper. Not only was he the leading scorer in two Indiana-Oklahoma all-star games, but he also won the dunk contest. But like Tate, he sat out last season as a Prop. 48.
- Barry Howard, jr., 6-5 forward. He played two years at Washington before transferring to Utah last year. He's not a shooter. The Utes are counting on him for defense and rebounding. "He'll be a spot player for us," says Majerus. "His contributions won't be measured in stats."
- Anthony Williams, 5-11, jr., point guard. He averaged 17 points and 4 assists per game last year for a 35-3 team at Southern Idaho. So far, he hasn't asserted himself with the Utes.
- Paul Afeaki, 6-10, jr. center. Afeaki, a Tongan and a good leaper, averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game and had 89 blocked shots for Snow College two years ago. He's also been injured this fall (pulled hamstring).
What it all adds up to is that the Utes, while short on experience, possess more depth and athleticism this season and should surpass last year's showing. The schedule is right and Majerus is back.