Over and over, Rick Majerus keeps reminding us that his University of Utah basketball team is in the middle of a vast rebuilding process and nobody should expect much in the way of victories yet. The trouble is, here it is December and the Utes are 5-1. OK, so there were a couple of stiffs in there, but on Thursday night - 48 hours after manhandling Utah State - the Utes clobbered a good University of Oregon team 95-81.
Rebuilding? Hmmm. The Utes pulled away late in the first half and were never really threatened the rest of the night, even though junior guard Terrell Brandon - coming soon to an NBA arena near you - was unstoppable during a 31-point show for attending pro scouts.Even Majerus - who gives up compliments about as easily as menus - was finally convinced. "They played well tonight," he said, which for him was positively gushing. "They played hard. I'm really proud of the effort."
So proud, that instead of holding his usual 15-minute post-game meeting with his players, Majerus let them go after only a minute or so.
"He actually congratulated us," said guard Byron Wilson. "He just let us go. It surprised us. It was kind of nice."
"This was a nice win for us," said Majerus. "Oregon is a good team."
Indeed, although they entered the game with a 1-2 record, the Ducks - a middle-of-the-Pac-10 team - had nearly beaten Missouri and Wisconsin before routing Alabama-Birmingham Tuesday. Almost exactly a year ago Oregon also routed Utah, and in that game center Walter Watts was victimized by 6-11 Bob Fife.
"I did remind Walt of last year," said Majerus.
Watts responded with perhaps the best game of his career, although it certainly didn't begin that way. Early in the game, Watts was stuffed twice, gave up two alley-oop dunks and was promptly yanked from the game.
"The lobs were his responsibility," said Majerus. "I wanted to remind him of that."
Watts finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds, made 8 of 9 field goal attempts - off tipins, breakaway dunks, reverse dunks, rebound buckets, double-clutch layups - in just 22 minutes of play. Fife, meanwhile, had 4 points and 1 rebound.
"Walt has been playing well more and more," said Majerus, "and one reason is because we've been able to rest him more (because of the play of Paul Afeaki)."
It was a good thing for the Utes that Watts delivered when he did, because their two leading scorers - Josh Grant and Wilson - were both ill and preoccupied. Grant, who still managed 15 points, handled heavy rebounding and defensive duties, and Wilson had 11 points.
Mixon is one-half of Oregon's high-scoring guardline. The other half is Brandon, whom the Utes hoped to stop with the fleet Jimmy Soto and Tyrone Tate. No such luck. Brandon - with five NBA scouts watching among the 10,196 fans - made 14 of 21 field goal attempts, only two of which were treys. He also had 4 steals and 5 assists and didn't want to talk about it.
Asked about his performance, Brandon politely said, "I have no comment on that. I'm a team player. It doesn't mean all that much. I'm here to win."