Wednesday's practice ended late. It was supposed to be over at 5. It went till a quarter to 6.
"Coach doesn't go by time, he goes by feel," explained Jeff Judkins, one of Rick Majerus's assistant coaches at the University of Utah.With the first home conference game of the season only 24 hours away - tonight against New Mexico in the Huntsman Center - Majerus felt like spending a little more time addressing the intricacies of man-to-man defense.
"DENY EVERYTHING," Majerus shouted at his team. "I MEAN DENY EVERYTHING. I WANT IT TO BE HARD TO PASS. I WANT IT TO BE HARD TO DRIBBLE."
For the other guys, of course. Tonight that would namely be the New Mexico Lobos.
In the contest against the team picked in preseason polls to win the WAC, the Utes' 10-game winning streak and 13-1 record go on the line yet again.
The Utes were picked in the preseason to finish seventh or eighth in the WAC, depending on whether you were an optimist or a pessimist. That they are now 13-1 overall, 2-0 in league play, and riding a winning streak that stretches back to Dec. 1, is one of the biggest basketball surprises in the nation, let alone the Rocky Mountains.
It is a team made up mostly of newcomers. Six of the players came into the season without a year of major college experience among them. Even the coach, Majerus, came into the season green - after taking last season off to recuperate from heart bypass surgery.
They got acquainted last Oct. 15 and immediately got defensive about their situation. They haven't stopped guarding people since. If anything has been the key to their 13 wins in 14 tries it has been their penchant to DENY EVERYTHING.
In the WAC opener last week in Honolulu they beat a solid Hawaii team in overtime because, as Majerus says, "we played defense about as good as we could play it."
It isn't a trick-'em defense. It doesn't rely on trapping and gambling and zoning. It is straightforward man defense, an upfront approach to whatever it is that an offense is trying to throw at you.
"Go ahead, let them push you," yelled Majerus at practice as the scout team did their best to impersonate the Lobos. "But never back down . . . Be strong in your lower body . . . Be tough in your mind."
Tough, constant, hard-nosed, never-back-down defense can cover a multitude of deficiencies is the gospel the coach preaches daily. He is not shy about saying so.
If the players didn't believe last October, they're starting to now.
Thirteen and one for a team that had to wear "HELLO, MY NAME IS . . ." tags to start the season.
For a team that is one or two wins away from being nationally ranked.
Majerus says he's surprised, quite frankly. He says his team has so far been both good and lucky; the Utes have been the antithesis of Murphy's Law. Everything that could go right has.
"We have played hard and we have played together," he allows. "I will say that. We wouldn't be where we are if everyone wasn't willing to do what he has to do."
"But I refuse to get caught up in all the emotion right now."
He'd rather just play defense.
He knows that tonight the Lobos' 7-foot-2 All-America candidate Luc Longley will be the Utes' biggest challenge. He knows he'll try to stop Longley with centers Walter Watts and Paul Afeaki, players he will use alternately, the way a hockey coach alternates his left wing.
He'll tell them Longley will be playing 40 minutes and they'll be playing 20 minutes each, so they'll have to use that to their advantage. Their orders will be to outrun and outhustle him all night long.
To DENY EVERYTHING.
"I can see it catching up to us," says Majerus, referring to the toll of the season as it reaches halfway. "I'm starting to see the wear and tear."
Playing full-time defense is never the easiest way to get to April.
But so far it's been the way to get a lot more wins than losses. The Utes are on a genuine roll, and the teams they've been playing haven't been. That hasn't been a coincidence. When you're having a hard time passing and dribbling, scoring is no picnic, either.