The University of Utah's Runnin' Utes were less than 24 hours removed from a disappointing loss, but you never would have guessed it Sunday evening. Some 1,000 fans turned out at the University Park Hotel - home to Coach Rick Majerus - to celebrate their team and to watch the announcement of the NCAA pairings on television with players and coaches.
When the NCAA selection committee made the Utes the fourth seed in the West Regional and assigned them a first-round game against the University of South Alabama Friday in Tucson, Ariz., they had something else to celebrate."The fourth seed is fantastic," Majerus told fans and reporters. " . . . Tucson is a good draw. We deserve a high seed. I want to thank the committee for the No. 4 seed."
No matter how you cut it, the Utes' seeding is indeed fortunate. Yes, they are in the same regional as Nevada-Las Vegas, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, but the earliest they could meet the Rebels would be the semifinals of the West Regional (a.k.a. the Sweet 16) next week in Seattle. To get there, the Utes must beat South Alabama, and then the winner of the Michigan State-Wisconsin/Green Bay game. In the meantime, UNLV must play Georgetown in the second round, if both win their first-round games.
"Georgetown is awfully good," said Majerus. "We got a good break. I'm delighted for the players. They deserve a break." He also said, "The proximity (of the playing site) is great for our fans and students."
Utah will meet USA on Friday, but the time of the game won't be announced until today.
"Everyone is worried about Vegas," star forward Josh Grant told the gathering. "We've got to worry about South Alabama first."
As of Sunday, the Utes knew little about their opponents. "Ironically, I saw them play 12 minutes the other night on TV," said Majerus. "That's all I know about them. Their coach (Ron Arrow) is a real good friend of (UNLV coach Jerry) Tarkanian. He'll have good athletes . . . As soon as I can get film, I'll look at them. I'll try to call some coaches tonight to ask about them."
"They're like a mini-Vegas," said assistant coach Joe Cravens. "The same kind of tempo. They like to run and press."
That was good news to Majerus, who noted, "The three slow-down teams that we faced this year (Colorado State, Air Force and BYU) gaveus the most difficulty."
This much also was known about USA's Jaguars: They own a 22-8 record and won both the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship and the Sun Belt post-season tournament championship. This is the Jaguars' fourth NCAA tournament appearance (they made the field in 1979, '80 and '89).
This season USA beat Old Dominion three times and split two games with Alabama-Birmingham. In non-conference play, USA beat James Madison and Texas A&M and lost road games to Arkansas (101-91) and New Orleans (96-95 in overtime).
Like the Utes, the Jaguars play 10 to 12 players every game. Ten players averaged between 4.9 and 13.6 points per game. Their leading scorer is 6-2 guard Kevin McDaniels, who averaged 13.6 points per game and shot 55 percent from the field. The rest of the lineup consists of 6-7 Bobby Curtis, 6-5 Marvin Eackles, 6-9 Cesar Portillo and 6-1 Cedric Yelding. Boobie James, who played with Utah's Craig Rydalch at Dixie College, averages 7.7 points per game.
The Utes are making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the 1985-86 season. Nevertheless, their high seeding in this year's tournament is no surprise. After back-to-back 16-win seasons, the Utes have rolled up an impressive 28-3 record this season. They are ranked eighth in both national polls and won the WAC regular-season championship. They lost to BYU - a team they defeated twice during the regular season - in the WAC post-season tournament finals Saturday night, 51-49 in overtime.
"Like I told the team last night (after the loss), I don't want anything to detract from their season," said Majerus. "They're still the WAC champs."
And, no, Majerus didn't think the loss hurt his team's seeding. "It was a two-point loss and we had two opportunities to win in overtime," he said. "I don't think we would have gotten the third seed (anyway)."
Neither did the loss affect the Utes' standing with their fans, who packed the University Park Hotel lobby Sunday and then some to see the team. Unable to fit everyone into the lobby, the fans lined each of the seven balconies that rise up seven stories high overlooking the lobby. They chanted, cheered and applauded their team for some 45 minutes.
Majerus spoke to and answered questions from media and fans, then co-captains Grant and Rydalch, plus the team's lone senior, Walter Watts, spoke to the gathering. Then Majerus introduced the rest of his players, coaches and support staff.
"I've never experienced anything like this in my life," said Rydalch.
"It was a real genuine display of affection," said Majerus later. "Nowhere have I seen this kind of support from fans. One guy called and left a message for me saying he couldn't make it because he couldn't park close enough. He's handicapped. I guess he felt like he sleighted me. That's the kind of support we have."