At the outset of the season, no one expected much from the University of Utah basketball team. The Utes, 16-14 last year, had one senior and eight new players, most of them strangers to Division 1 basketball. Nevertheless, on Monday it became official: For the first time in 10 years, the Utes cracked the national rankings.
They rank 22nd in the United Press International poll and 23rd in both the USA Today/CNN and Associated Press polls."I'm surprised by our record," says Utah coach Rick Majerus, "but I know I have some high-character kids. I like the makeup of the kids. And things are falling our way. We've hit key free throws, and we've won."
And then some. The Utes are 15-1 and have won 12 consecutive games. They haven't lost since Dec. 1, when they fell to Michigan on the road (the Wolverines own a 7-7 record). But the Utes, 4-0 in Western Athletic Conference play, still face strong challenges. On Thursday night, they play Wyoming - a 13-2 team that Majerus calls "Top 10 caliber" - in Laramie.
No matter what happens, the Utes are the year's biggest surprise so far, but maybe they shouldn't be. Majerus has done overnight rebuilding jobs before. In 1987, he took over a Ball State team that had finished the previous year with a 9-18 record - its third losing season in four years. Majerus guided the Cardinals to a 14-14 record his first year and 29-3 his second year, and then moved to Utah.
"I did the best coaching job of my life that first year at Ball State," says Majerus. "We started a walk-on."
In his first season at Utah last year, Majerus coached the Utes to a 4-2 start, but he was sidelined the rest of the season by open heart surgery.
In seven years as a college head coach - first at Marquette, then Ball State and Utah - Majerus has compiled a 118-55 record (including 48-6 during the last three years) and has never had a losing season.
"The thing about Rick Majerus is he's a great teacher," says Scott Layden, director of player personnel for the Utah Jazz. "And he has a real knack for getting his players to play hard."
Majerus himself is typically unimpressed with Utah's record and ranking. "I'm happy for the players," he says. "They've worked as hard as they could. We're OK. I just don't know what kind of team I've got. I know we're not that good. It's a tribute to these players, to their effort and their ability to function as a team."
"We've played well in tight games, which is surprising for a young team," says Utah's best player, Josh Grant, who also volunteers that he's as a surprised as anyone by Utah's record.
In producing their best start in a decade, the Utes have excelled on defense and rebounding. They are allowing opponents to shoot just 40.2 percent from the field, using an intense man-to-man defense. Playing nine players an average of 20 minutes or more per game, the Utes rarely tire. They also outrebound opponents by an average of 39.6 to 36.3.
On offense, the Utes have been nothing if not balanced. Those nine players all average more than five points per game. Only Grant (17.2) averages double figures.
The season and Majerus' hard practices have taken their toll. In last Saturday's game against UTEP, center Paul Afeaki wore a flak jacket to protect sore ribs, forward M'Kay McGrath was hampered by a sprained ankle and shin splints, reserve guard Jimmy Soto wore a heating pad on an injured shoulder during his stints on the bench, center Walter Watts picked up a bloody nose and guard Byron Wilson played sparingly because of a bruised rear end.
And then there's Majerus, a year removed from heart surgery, watching basketball games and videotape until as late as 3 a.m., preparing for the next game. No, he won't have a medical checkup until the season ends, he says. Six hours of sleep is all he gets during the season, he says.
"There are only six more weeks to go until the season is finished," says Majerus. "I don't count post-season play. That's just for fun." So far, it's all been fun for the Utes.