HEADING INTO a homecourt weekend that could wrap up the WAC basketball title for the University of Utah, Josh Grant, the Utes' leading scorer, leading rebounder, and leading man, terms the two-game Huntsman Center set with Wyoming (tonight) and BYU (Saturday) as "hugely important." Twenty-two wins, a No. 13 national ranking and an 11-1 WAC record later and you still can't accuse Grant of understatement.After all this, and the Utes are still taking themselves seriously. "I think Coach (Rick Majerus) might be worrying a little about us getting complacent, about us thinking that 22 wins is enough," says Grant. "But nobody needs to tell us that we win two (more) and a lot of dreams come true."
Just two more regular season games remain for Utah after this weekend - at CSU and at BYU - and the Utes, barring total collapse, are then off to see the postseason wizard. That's an intriguing situation for the Utes, who, because of the rack and ruin they've administered to the WAC, remain largely an unsolved mystery to the basketball world at large. Two questions predominate: 1) Is the WAC really that bad? and 2) Are the Utes really that good?
"It would be great to play some of those big schools," says Grant. "And see how we'd do."
"People still have to be wondering about Utah," says Grant, continuing. "About a bunch of nobodies out West. Just a bunch of guys who go out there and work hard, play together, play defense, and shoot, hopefully, somewhere over 10 percent."
For the season, Utah is shooting 45.8 percent from the floor (Grant, a team man, is at 45.9 percent). That's the bad news. The good news is their opponents are shooting 41.3.
"Well, we play hard and we play together and everybody helps everybody out," says Grant, who admits that he is getting a lion's share of the indidivual recognition out of the Utes' crusade. Being the leading scorer and rebounder makes you the trigger man, for better or for worse. In this case better.
"What I've found is that people like winners better than they like scorers," says Grant, who has been a scorer ever since his father, Paul Grant, himself a former Ute, hung a basket in the driveway of their home on the east side of Salt Lake and pointed it in the direction of the Utah campus. "Average 30 a game and lose and Josh Grant is just another kid out West. Average 16 a game and win and everybody takes a look."
"I'm riding the coat tails of this whole thing," he says. "People have to find a reason for us winning. They want somebody to point to."
The remarkable part, as far as Grant is concerned, is that all of this winning emerged from the lowest point of his basketball life. That would be two years ago, at about this time, when Ute head coach Lynn Archibald began being pestered by moving van companies. At the end of the season, Archibald was indeed sent packing by the Utes, and even though he'd seen it coming as sure as he sees 260-pound Walter Watts when he's moving through the key, Grant took it hard. Archibald had recruited him, had convinced him he shouldn't take any of the flattering out-of-state offers, had convinced him Utah State and BYU were mere farm schools for Utah, and had welcomed him as more or less a member of the Archibald family.
"I broke down and cried after the final game of the season, when I got the news," says Grant now that he's two years removed from the ordeal and sufficiently composed.
He considered transferring. He went so far as to inquire informally of Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm and Utah State Coach Kohn Smith if he might be welcome on their campuses if he showed up with a class schedule.
"But I'm really not a quitter," says Grant, so he buckled down, got to know the new coach the Utes brought in, Majerus, and braced himself for what was to come.
His getting-acquainted period with Majerus - Mr. Intense meets Mr. Would-Have-Been-a-Surfer-If-He'd-Been-Born-By-An-Ocean - is a story worthy of another column, or a weekly TV series. But suffice it to say, the star player and driven coach managed to survive both Grant's heartbreak and Majerus's heart operation and have gone on to develop a mutual respect to the point that Josh now says, "If he's NOT screaming at me - then I worry."
So now, together, along with the rest of the Unbelievable Utes, they wade into a huge weekend. It they do say so themselves.