Here comes Team Adversity again. The University of Utah's eighth-ranked Utes arrived in Laramie Tuesday to assess the latest damage and to prepare for tonight's game against San Diego State in the second round of the Western Athletic Conference post-season tournament.
Center Walter Watts has a week-old knee injury, but it appears that he will play tonight. His backup, Paul Afeaki, who is still not fully recovered from a gun-shot wound, has joined the team in Laramie, and might play for the first time in three weeks. Phil Dixon, who is still recovering from a sprained right (shooting) wrist, will play, but will he be any more effective than he has been in recent weeks?By now, of course, the Utes are used to such problems. This is, after all, the same team that, during the last 14 months, has seen its head coach undergo major heart surgery; its star shooter fall through a window; its backup center get shot by a crazed motorist; and one of its return flights end with a lost engine and an emergency landing.
Aside from injuries, Rick Majerus, Utah's head coach, thinks the Utes will have something else working against them tonight. "We're penalized by winning the league," he said earlier this week. "We're the only team that doesn't know who we're going to play in our first game."
That's because the regular-season champion's first opponent wasn't determined until the WAC's two worst teams (in this case San Diego State and Air Force) met in a preliminary round game. As a result, Majerus says his team couldn't prepare properly for for tonight's game. Asked if he could have prepared for both Air Force and San Diego State, Majerus said, "Not the way we prepare."
There's one more obstacle for the Utes this week: history. In the seven-year history of the WAC tournament, the regular-season champion has won the tournament only two times - none in the last five years. What's more, the Utes have been eliminated in the first or second round of the WAC tournament four times in the past five years. Last year marked only the second time they have advanced as far as the semifinals; they have never made the finals.
But, as star forward Josh Grant notes, "We've been playing against the odds all year."
The Utes, who won the regular-season championship by four games over runner-up BYU, own records of 26-2 overall and 15-1 in WAC play. That means they swept every team except one (New Mexico), including San Diego State (scores: 68-62/67-60).
Tonight's rematch, which will be televised on Channel 2, will begin at 9:35.
Majerus is anything but happy to be here - he loathes conference tournaments because they cost his players critical class time before final exams - but he has high expectations for his team. "The frightening thing is that we haven't played a bad game all year," he says. "Except for seven minutes at New Mexico and 12 at Michigan and a couple against Weber, we've played very hard. As I look back on it now, we were in a long slump for a while there, but we still won."
"We've got to keep things going," says Grant.
But one must wonder how effective the Utes will be if Watts, a second-team all-conference center, is unable to go the distance, and Afeaki, his backup, isn't ready to play.
Also, Dixon hasn't been the same shooter since a game against Wyoming on Feb. 14. In that game, he scored 20 points, but sprained his wrist when he went to the floor after being undercut during a layup. In the three games since then he has totaled nine points, including a scoreless outing in the first game against BYU.
"Yeah, it bothers me," says Dixon, who holds a heat pack on the wrist before games. "I've missed a couple of practices because of it."
As for tonight's opponent, the Aztecs are 12-15 overall, 6-10 in WAC play. Their lineup consists of 6-8 forward Keith Balzer (9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds), 6-7 forward Courtie Miller (6.6, 2.5), 7-1 center Marty Dow (17.5, 9.6), 6-1 guard Ray Barefield (3.7, 2.4) and guard Arthur Massey (15.1, 4.5).