Perhaps now it's time to take the University of Utah Runnin' Utes seriously, even if their coach, Rick Majerus, continues to pooh-pooh the whole notion. Sure, the Utes have beaten up on a lot of nobodys, but on Saturday they finally got what was supposed to be a big-time matchup with Wichita State in the Huntsman Center and guess what happens? Same thing. The Utes blew out the Shockers like they were some kind of Morehead State.
For the record, Utah beat Wichita State - your official Hard Luck Team of the Midwest - by a score of (are you ready for this?) 95-48. That's 47 points - the Utes' biggest margin of victory since 1966.The beat goes on. The Utes have now claimed seven consecutive victories. They also own a glittering 10-1 record to take home with them over Christmas break. Happy holidays.
The Utes made an 18-2 run in the first half to take a 44-25 halftime lead, then made a 22-2 run in the second half, and that was that. At one point they led by 51 points. "Walter (Watts) and I sat on the bench looking up at the scoreboard, and we couldn't believe it," said Ute guard Craig Rydalch. "50 points! They're a good team."
It could have been worse. Majerus mercifully benched star Josh Grant and a number of other starters with still much of the second half to play.
"I didn't want to bury them," said the coach. "It was just one of those nights when we hit our shots."
The Utes made a school-record 14 three-point shots on 22 attempts. Phil Dixon, the team's part-time, designated trey specialist, made a school-record 7 of 8 treys. He finished with a career-high 23 points in just 15 minutes of play, which means he was worth about 1.5 points per minute out there.
"They shot the heck out of it," said WSU coach Mike Cohen.
But the Utes did more than shoot well. They outboarded the Shockers 56-28 - with M'Kay McGrath, Watts and Byron Wilson good for 9 boards each - and Utah's sticky man-to-man defense played a big part in WSU's making just 18 of 59 field goal attempts (31 percent). Not one of the Shockers scored in double figures.
"You've got to give them credit," said WSU forward John Cooper. "Not only did they take a big lead in the first half, but they made it even bigger in the second half."
For the Utes, it was just another night at the office. They have won eight games by 14 or more points, including the last six. Of course, you'd never know it to listen to Majerus. Ever the perfectionist, he has called Dixon possibly the best pure shooter in the West, but after Saturday's game he told him, "You've got to decide if you want to be just another slug who shoots it, or if you're going to progress into a complete player." On the Utes' fast start this season, Majerus said, "Ten and one means nothing. One and ten mean nothing. I know a good team. We're still sixth, seventh or eighth in the Western Athletic Conference."
And how about the Utes' big win Saturday? "It was a nice game," he said. "The guys played hard."
A niiiice game? "They (WSU) were on the road," he continued. "I feel bad for them. Ithought they'd be good, but they missed the one kid."
Which reminds us, the Shockers were not at full strength Saturday. Let's see if we can keep all this straight. Guard Robert George and forward Mike Wiggins were suspended from the first half of Saturday's game for missing the team bus to the morning shootaround. They were lucky. Cooper, the team's all-America candidate, injured his left heel at the shootaround and missed the entire game. Just like that, three of the team's top six players were on the bench. And this was just one day in the life of the Shockers. On Friday, Calvin Thomas, a top reserve, froze part of his left ear off - literally - while walking to class Friday in Wichita. And then there's Cohen, who blew out a knee earlier this season - while jumping up and down in front of the bench.
When at full strength, the Shockers, 4-4, had defeated Alabama and Oklahoma State earlier this season. When not at full strength, they were no match for the Utes.
The last time the game was even remotely close the score was 18-13. From there the Utes began the first of their two big runs.
Everyone seemed to have his moments. Backup center Paul Afeaki connected on the hook, a dunk and a layup. Wilson (14 points, 4 assists) hit a trey and found Grant for a back-door dunk. During one stretch in the second half, Grant (16 points, 8 boards) made a trey from the corner, raced down the baseline for a jam, and tipped in a missed shot to score seven unanswered points. Dixon made three quick treys, went to the bench for a quick chewing out from Majerus, then returned to hit back-to-back treys. He was quiet for a time in the second half, but then dropped in back-to-back treys again, this time from well behind the three-point line, as Utah eventually opened a 93-42 lead.
"I felt hot," he explained. "I've got good range. Wherever I am, I shoot. I don't think about it."
The Utes now have a week off before resuming play against Utah State in Logan. They can only hope they don't cool off in the meantime.