The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and USA Today are doing feature stories on them. The Indianapolis Star and Sports Illustrated have already published stories about them. The Dallas media is trying to set up interviews with them. Suddenly, the University of Utah's Surprisin' Utes and Coach Rick Majerus are the rage in college basketball.
"I returned to my office Tuesday and had 22 messages waiting for me," said Bruce Woodbury, Utah's sports information director. "Rick could do a talk show every night of the week, if he wanted to. All of a sudden, we've become very interesting."That's what happens when a team wins 14 consecutive games, builds a 17-1 record and comes from nowhere to climb to 17th and 20th in the two major national polls.
When the Utes returned home from their latest road conquest Sunday, they were greeted at the airport by several members of the school band, who played the school song right there in the baggage claim area.
These are proud times for Utah.
In the meantime, it's business as usual. The Utes will try to extend their winning streak to 15 games and maintain their hold on first place in the Western Athletic Conference when they meet Colorado State Thursday at 7:35 in the Huntsman Center. The Rams are 9-7 overall, 1-4 in WAC play.
The Utes are two wins away from tying the longest winning streak in school history, and they've managed it with blue-collar play - read: defense and rebounding - and a slumping offense.
Before conference play began, the Utes were shooting 48.8 percent from the field and averaging 81.7 points per game. In WAC play, they are shooting 42.4 percent and averaging 68.3 points. The caliber of competition partly accounts for the slide, but even against lowly Air Force the Utes shot just 33 percent from the field while missing a number of open shots.
"Part of it is the result of two things that we do very well," says assistant coach Kirk Earlywine. "First, we expend so much energy and play so hard on defense and rebounding that it takes away from our movement on offense. And second, our depth has helped us win games, but it makes it hard to get in the flow offensively. It comes down to priorities. We believe in defense and rebounding because we think they win games. That's our philosophy."
It has been a good trade for the Utes - offense for defense. Their exhausting, unrelenting man-to-man defense is holding opponents' shooting to a mere 40.6 percent (24 percent from three-point range), and allowing an average of only 60.8 points per game. The Utes also are outrebounding WAC opponents 37.7 to 33.5.
Earlywine, who coached under Majerus at Ball State, recalls, "We struggled offensively at Ball State, too, and we were 29-3."
"We are taking good shots," says Majerus. "You have to give the other team's defense credit."
Colorado State, another superb defensive team, is not likely to remedy any of Utah's offensive problems. The Rams hold their opponents to 41.8 percent from the field and 62.1 points per game.
CSU's lineup consists of 6-7 forward Chuckie White (a transfer from Indiana who averages 15 points per game), 6-7 center Aaron Atkinson (3.6), and three guards - 6-2 Wayne Gipson (5.1), 6-3 Mark Meredith (10.9) and 6-3 Lynn Tryon (15.0).
The Utes, who split two games with the Rams last season, should be at full strength against the Rams. Center Paul Afeaki dislocated a finger on his shooting hand last Saturday, but he is expected to play Thursday.