The University Of Utah ran its season record to 9-1 last night in the Huntsman Center. Morehead State was the victim, losing by 29 points, 77-48. At that it was a mercy killing. The Utes were up by 35, 55-20, with almost half of the game still to play.
It could have been worse. The Utes could have been entertaining Maryland-Eastern Shore, or Northeastern, or a school called Brescia. Those are all schools Morehead State had beaten en route to a 5-2 record entering last night's game.The Eagles will now go home to Morehead, Ky., to prepare for games against Eastern Kentucky, Alcorn State and Tennessee State, and to show off their black and blue bruises from their trip out West. Their game against Utah was the biggie of the year
- a chance to play a "major major," as head coach Tommy Gaither put it last night. "We try to play a couple of these every year," he explained. "We have Clemson and Kentucky next year. We do it for a couple of reasons. Naturally, we rely on the good guarantee to help our budget. Also, we put teams like Utah on our schedule, it's got to help our recruiting."
"But it isn't very often you see a team in our situation come in and beat somebody like a Utah," said Gaither.
Knowing that, the Utes have been more than happy this year to help out the Morehead States of the basketball world. They've been laughing all the way to 9 and 1.
Utah has had an open-the-season schedule to make George Foreman drool. If the Utes aren't confident by now they never will be.
They opened with Cal-Davis, an NCAA Div. II school that doesn't give athletic scholarships and calls itself an academic institution. True, the Cal-Davis Aggies play in the same league as Notre Dame, but it's the Notre Dame in California.
They've played two Pacifics, and neither one has been the Div. I University of the Pacific, which is in Stockton, Calif., and is only oceanically related to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., and Seattle Pacific University located in, of all places, Seattle. Pacific U. is an NAIA school that doesn't give scholarships, while Seattle Pacific is a Div. II program that plays in the Great Northwest Conference and only gives a few scholarships.
Cal-Davis and the two Pacifics are the only non-NCAA Div. I programs Utah has played this year, although Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a school it beat by two on the road, is Div. I only as of this season, after a 10-year demotion to Div. II. For some reason, after a 10-18 record last season, which included a two-state sweep of losses to Wisconsin-Parkside, Wisconsin-Platteville, Eastern Michigan, Northern Michigan, Western Michigan and Michigan Tech, all in the same year, the Panthers decided to upgrade to Div. I this season. Probably to get out of playing the Michigan-Wisconsin death march again.
Utah's other six opponents to date have been long-standing NCAA Div. I programs. They have included Utah State, Weber State, Oregon, Michigan, Cal-Irvine and Morehead State. All, ironically, are programs that have seen better days and are in various states of rebuilding.
The Utes' only loss has been to Michigan, by 16, on the road. Seven of the Utes' first 10 games have been at home, where the average winning margin has been 21 points.
The Utes are hoping they'll be so confident from all this winning that by the time they enter WAC play - two weeks from now - that they'll not even notice that it's not the Pacific U. Boxers they're still playing.
They're also hoping that visits to places like El Paso and Ft. Collins won't be rude awakenings to real Div. I basketball.
"We knew we'd be a young team this year," says U. of U. athletic director Chris Hill. "I think a learning curve had to happen. I think that is what has happened. We've been challenged, to a point. And we have responded."
Whether Utah's run through the patsies turns out to be a scheduling stroke of genius, or not, one thing is becoming obvious: those underdogs that have played the Utes have been inspired by the task.
Cal-Davis has gone on to a 6-3 mark to date, the same as Seattle Pacific, while Wisconsin-Milwaukee is 5-4 and counting and Pacific University is a glossy 6-1. Morehead State will probably take its 5-3 mark back to Kentucky and beat the bluegrass out of Eastern Kentucky.
Throw out the loss to the Utes in each of the above records, and the percentages get glossier still.
For the little guys, the best part about playing Utah has been the aftermath; whether that will also hold true for the Utes is a question that makes the upcoming league play portion of the season more than a little intriguing.