Now that the spotlight is intensifying. Now that they're starting to ask for birth certificates and blood tests and they're ordering background checks. Now that they've lifted prints off yet another victim - Wyoming's Cowboys being the latest - Rick Majerus is trying harder than ever to explain just who these guys playing basketball for him at the University of Utah are.
Ten minutes after the Utes won No. 13 in a row and validated their three-day-old national ranking (No. 23) here Thursday night with their 90-83 win over Wyoming, Majerus, the Utes' head coach, talked to a horde of reporters, trying to make sense of what's happening."They're a great group of guys that compete," he said of his squad. "You know what it is? It's characterized by the word `team.' Everybody contributes. Everybody's happy for everybody else. We just kind of fish around out there and see what happens.
"I'll tell you," the coach continued, "some of these guys are very, very tough. Soto's tough, Rydalch is tough, McGrath is tough, Tate's tough . . . some of the guys not so tough are skilled . . . and they help each other out."
They've helped each other out to the tune of a 16-1 overall record and a 5-0 WAC record that leads the league now that Wyoming - 3-0 in conference play coming into Thursday's game - has a loss.
The Utes trailed by six at the end of the first half, but put together a 58-point second half that could arguably qualify as the best second-half-on-the-WAC-road in school history. In the final 20 minutes the Utes held the league's top shooting team to 13-of-32 from the floor (40.6 percent). They outrebounded the league's top rebounding team by double, 24-12. They made 57 percent of their shots (16-of-28), and they took turns down the stretch hitting key field goals and free throws.
All this from a team that just three months ago was considered to be an also-ran in the WAC and a lot less than that in the nation; a curious blend of junior college transfers, redshirts, new recruits, a minority of returning starters and a head coach just back from heart surgery.
"We're from all over the place," says starting guard Byron Wilson, a redshirt sophomore. "We're a lot of different nationalities from a lot of faraway places."
The Utes are a diverse blend. They have, for example, a Tongan (juco transfer Paul Afeaki). They have a Canadian (redshirt guard Phil Dixon). They have a Chicagoan (redshirt guard Tyrone Tate). They have a graduate of South Summit High School in Kamas, Utah (Craig Rydalch). They have a walk-on from Ogden (Sean Mooney). They have an Arizonan (M'Kay McGrath). In all, they are from seven states and two foreign countries.
Forward Josh Grant, one of the team's few known quantities when the season began, remembers looking at his teammates at the first practice session.
"The big question was could we build any chemistry?" says Grant, whose 23 points led the Utes. "I wondered who we were."
Now he isn't wondering and other people are.
Like, for instance, Wyoming.
If anyone's used to humbling the Utes, especially when they're on the road, it's the Cowboys. They'd beaten the Utes in Laramie 10 of the last 12 years; and in the nine-year history of the Arena Auditorium they'd allowed Utah one win, by two points.
Until Thursday night. Even while being subjected to a constant barrage of abuse, both physical and verbal, from the 12,867 in attendance, the Utes played as if it was they who owned the place.
They thought they were playing the western music for them.
"Some if us have had a little experience with playing in tough places," said Rydalch, who had a career-high 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals. "We talked about it before the game, that we could win here. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about the war in the Persian Gulf not bothering us."
"I think the formula for this team," Rydalch continued, "is that everybody respects everybody else. No matter who does the job, everybody's happy."
If that sounds like what Majerus said it's because it IS what Majerus said. This team that's now crossing the border from curious to amazing seems to do everything together, and alike. Take on one of these guys, you take on them all. Home, or away.