As college basketball teams go, the University of Utah's Runnin' Utes aren't much to look at. Can't shoot a lick. No bodies to speak of. Can't put anyone away early. Experience? Forget it. Does this sound like a Top 20 team?
Or does this? Their ranks include a former pro baseball pitcher, an Air Force veteran, two walk-ons recruited right out of the student body, a Tongan center and four returned Mormon missionaries. Even their coach, who owns no suits and one tie and wears either of two sweaters every game, looks out of place among his tony peers. It was only a year ago that he underwent open heart surgery, which forced him to miss most of his first season with the Utes.So how is it that Utah - picked to finish sixth in the Western Athletic Conference - has already clinched the WAC championship, won 24 of 26 games and climbed to 13th in the national polls? How is it that these unlikely Utes are three wins away from becoming the winningest team in the rich, 83-year history of Utah basketball?
How have they done it? Here are a few ideas:
DEFENSE & REBOUNDING: The Utes have shot horrendously this season. In WAC play, they're shooting 42.4 percent (45.4 for the season). In 18 of their past 19 games, they've shot below 50 percent - including eight times at 40 percent or worse - and yet they've won 17 of those games.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" says Head Coach Rick Majerus. "I think it's our defense, and we hustle."
Sure, the Utes can't shoot, but neither can their opponents, thanks to Majerus' relentless man-to-man defense, which not only wears down opponents, but also the Utes themselves. Utah coaches think their exhausting defense, plus an ever-changing lineup, hurts their team's shooting and offense, but they also believe it's worth the tradeoff.
"Our philosophy is that defense and rebounding are what win games," says Ute assistant coach Kirk Earlywine.
"The one thing we do is play great defense and we rebound," says Majerus, actually naming two things.
Only three teams have shot better than 50 percent against Utah this season. An average shooting night against the Utes is 41.7 percent from the field and 63.4 points.
But a lot of coaches talk about defense, you're saying. True, but few of them devote 60 percent to 70 percent of their daily practice and preparation time to it, as the Utes do.
"The way Coach (Majerus) teaches it is part of it," says assistant coach Jeff Judkins. "He teaches to extend screens, to pressure the ball, to play the post position several ways, to cover down when the ball goes into the post, to make a lot of contact when players cut through the middle. He takes the aggressive approach."
The Utes have been equally aggressive on the boards this season. They have outrebounded their opponents in 20 of their 26 games.
"I didn't think this team would be so good on defense and on the boards as they have been," says Earlywine, who was an assistant under Majerus at Ball State during the Cardinals' 29-3 season. "At Ball State, we were about the same (as Utah) in terms of talent, but what we had was great bodies through the whole lineup. We don't have that here."
Majerus is less tactful. "Our bodies are awful," he says. "My thigh is bigger than (guard) Jimmy Soto. The only guy with a body on our team is Byron Wilson."
M'Kay McGrath, Josh Grant, Jimmy Soto and Paul Afeaki all have the thin, almost gaunt lines of a distance runner. Only three of Utah's top 10 players weigh more than 210 pounds, and two of them are the rail-thin Grant (216) and Afeaki (220). But the Utes lack more than bulk; they lack height, too. Forget what the game program says. Watts is closer to 6-foot-7 than the listed 6-8, Paul Afeaki is 6-9, not 6-10, Craig Rydalch is 6-31/2, not 6-4. Soto is listed as 5-10, but he's really 5-8.
"I don't care what they put their height as," says Majerus. "But I know we aren't very big. Most teams we play are bigger than we are."
Still, the Utes have managed to outrebound their opponents by an average of 38.1 to 32.5. "We play position" says Judkins. "We box out. We put a body on people. A lot of teams don't do that."
Of course much of playing good defense, say coaches, is simply the result of playing hard, of hustling. As Scott Layden, the Utah Jazz director of player personnel, once noted, "Rick Majerus has a knack for getting his players to play hard."
MENTAL TOUGHNESS: In more than half of their games this season , the Utes have trailed in the second half. They have won 12 of them, including nine in WAC play. This from a team that includes four sophomores, one freshman, just one senior and a total of six players who are playing their first year of Division 1 basketball.
"I don't know why, but in tight situations, we keep our composure better than last year, which is surprising for such a young team," says forward Josh Grant.
Majerus thinks he knows why. "Our guys are mentally tough," he says. "I was talking to some Jazz (officials) the other night after our game, and they were talking about how tough our team is."
"Mentally tough means you just don't let situations or the score or bad calls or being on the road change your game," explains Judkins. "You don't let things bother you. You keep going. That's what these guys do. We've won a lot of games shooting below 40 percent. How many teams could do that?"
Of course mentally tough includes another coaching buzzword. "They (the Utes) have tremendous discipline," says Wyoming coach Benny Dees. He should know. When the Utes fell behind Wyoming by 10 points in Laramie, they kept playing their steady game. Later, when the Utes took the lead, the Cowboys panicked, and began heaving hurried bricks from 24 feet. It was the same story against UTEP and Hawaii. Utah plays the same, ahead or behind.
"A lot of teams do fine when they're in front," says Judkins. "And I know I've seen some teams quit against us."
There's another reason the Utes win close games . . . .
PREPARATION/Xs and Os: Both before the game and at halftime, Ute coaches have made superb adjustments to their opponents, and their players have executed them. Certainly, Majerus and his staff have proven that they can design a plan to stop a big scorer.
"We take a lot of pride in that," says Judkins. "We make someone else beat us."
Against Utah in Laramie, Wyoming's Reggie Slater, the WAC's best rebounder and second leading scorer, had the worst game of his career - 6 points and 5 rebounds. In the rematch he was only slightly better, with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 turnovers. Ditto for 7-foot-2 Luc Longley in the first New Mexico-Utah game (11 points, 6 turnovers). Hawaii's Ray Reed, the WAC's leading scorer, scored just nine points against Utah.
When an opposing player does manage to light it up against the Utes, it's usually only in the first half. At halftime, Ute coaches meet to discuss changes, matchups and Xs and Os. Majerus takes notes, then takes them to his players. Result: UTEP's Marlon Maxey had 13 points in the first half, none in the second half. Hawaii's Tim Shepherd had 17 in the first half, none in the second half. Similarly, Wyoming's Maurice Alexander, one of the WAC's top scorers, totaled 32 points in the first Utah game - when he was largely unknown - but only 10 in the rematch.
DEPTH/ROLE-PLAYING: Nobody has ever accused the Utes of being overly talented. Ask a Ute coach - or any other WAC coach - which WAC teams have more talent than Utah, and they'll tell you New Mexico, Wyoming, BYU and maybe UTEP. Aside from Grant, the Utes have little in the way of outstanding basketball talent (although Afeaki, Watts, Soto and Wilson all have superb athletic ability). For now at least, the rest are role players - players who can't do everything well, just some things; together they provide all the ingredients for a winner.
"They are the epitome of a role-playing, good basketball team that does what it has to do to win," says New Mexico coach Dave Bliss.
The Utes' motto is Team Together. That's what they chant at the conclusion of every huddle and every meeting. As a reminder, the letters TT are printed on their warmups.
And they are a team. With the exception of Grant - the team's lone scorer in double figures - there are no stars. From start to finish of every game, Majerus shuffles nine or 10 players in and out of the game. Not only does it provide the Utes with varying skills, it also allows them to stay fresh enough to handle Majerus' man-to-man defense and to finish strong down the stretch.
"Coach doesn't want anyone on the floor tired," says Judkins. "Few players can play every minute the way he wants them to play."
As for their roles, Judkins says, "Coach defines each player's role. He says it right out. He says Josh is the best player, get him the ball, set screens for him. He tells Barry (Howard) to rebound, defend and don't make turnovers. Rydalch's job is to set screens, take charges, take the open shot. He tells Tyrone (Tate) to let the game come to him, don't force things, find the open man. He tells Byron don't force the shot. He's told Phil (Dixon) he's our greatest shooter and to take the open shot. (Sean) Mooney's job is to be a banger."
Majerus sends so many players in and out of the game that he often ends up, at some point in the game, with a strange lineup. Sometimes three centers are on the floor at once, sometimes five guards, sometimes no scorers.
"Sometimes I think he doesn't know the lineup on the floor," says Judkins. "When he sees someone's tired, he substitutes. But some combinations don't work well, and we talk about it afterward."
Yet, surprisingly, it all works out. As New Mexico forward Vladimir McCrary noted, "They are the Boston Celtics of college basketball. They just do everything right, play together like Boston."
"They play great team ball," says Dees. "They keep running people at you. They remind me of those great Indiana teams in the mid 70s."
And what does Majerus say to all this? "(The Utes) are a young team. No matter what happens from here on, they've had a wonderful year."