As the University of Utah Runnin' Utes head into Friday afternoon's NCAA tournament matchup with 13 strangers from the University of South Alabama, there are several burning questions to consider:
Can the Utes handle a Vegas-like press and running game? Can the Jaguars run against the sticky Majerus D? Can the Utes handle a dose of their own medicine - that is, mass substitutions?To answer these questions, tune in your television set at about 3 p.m. (or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Michigan State/Green Bay-Wisconsin game).
In this corner, we have Utah - 10th-ranked, fourth-seeded, 28-3 and champion of the Western Athletic Conference - and in this corner we have South Alabama - 13th-seeded, 22-8 and champion of the Sun Belt Conference. It's Rick Majerus - the WAC coach of the Year, the Basketball Times National Coach of the Year - versus Ronnie Arrow - the Sun Belt Coach of the Year.
"We're going into it thinking we're the No. 4 seed," says guard Craig Rydalch. "We think we should win."
My how expectations change. Only two months ago they were just hoping to be a contender in the WAC. Now the Utes - the same team that won just 16 games in each of the past two seasons - are thinking 16 again - as in Sweet 16. To do so they must beat USA on Friday, and then beat the winner of the Michigan State-Wisconsin/Green Bay game.
For the record, the Utes have appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times (record: 16-17), the last time being five years ago. Nevertheless, it's business as usual this week."We have no fear of any team because of the way our coaching staff prepares us," said forward Josh Grant last weekend.
Indeed, Majerus, a fanatic strategist, excels at preparing his teams. This week he has chatted with coaches who faced USA in non-conference play and immersed himself in videotape. He also flew to Tucson ahead of his team to begin on-site preparations, as well.
So far, this is what the Utes know about USA:
- The Jaguars use a variety of full-court and half-court presses almost constantly. "The thing that I'm really scared of is how we handle the pressure," says assistant coach Jeff Judkins. "We know how to defend. We've done that. And that could hurt them because they haven't really faced a man-to-man defense like ours. But I am concerned about how we take care of the ball against the press."
- The Jaguars are so-so shooters. They shot 49 percent from the field, but assistant coach Joe Cravens says that's misleading. "They get a lot of layups off the press," he says. "They're not a great outside shooting team. They're adequate."
- The Jaguars aren't big. Indeed, the undersized Utes match up well with them. "Our starting lineup is actually bigger than theirs," says Rydalch. USA's starters are 6-foot-9, 6-7, 6-5, 6-2, 6-1; the Utes 6-10, 6-8, 6-5, 6-3, 6-0. So much for Utah's good news; the bad news is . . .
- "We match up well with them in size, but not in athletic ability," says Cravens. "They're . . . all junior college transfers. If we got into a track meet with them, we'd come in a distant second. They're very athletic and they're very explosive. You can be up on them by 10 points and feeling good, and then suddenly be down by 10. They score in bunches. They force turnovers in bunches."
- The Jaguars like to run on offense, which is why they average 89 points per game. But don't expect the Utes necessarily to milk the clock. "We just play according to the pressure," says Rydalch. "We're an opportunistic team. We can run and we can play half-court."
- The Jaguars, like the Utes, substitute freely and often. They use as many as 12 players each game - nine of them play more than 13 minutes per game, and none play more than 27 minutes. They send in three or more new players at once, which can cause problems on defense.
"They're the only team that substitutes like we do," says Judkins. "I just hope the guys know who they match up with. There's no time for us (Ute coaches) to say you have him, and you have him . . . It's hard. I know it's helped us this year . . . They have a lot of guys they can go to. It makes them hard to prepare for. It's scary."
Says Cravens, "When they substitute three to five guys at a time, (the players) have got to know the personnel - one guy is a driver, one guy is a shooter, etc."
- The Jaguars run about five set plays, with options off of those plays. That isn't many by most standards (BYU had 14, say the Utes). "They're not a horribly complicated team," says assistant coach Joe Cravens. "They just come at you."
The Utes will memorize the plays anyway, as they always do. This season they have been known to call out their rivals' plays before they even unfold. Cravens explains, "We try to pick up teams' calls when we scout them in person. We try to take some things away from each team we play. If they have two or three money plays, and we take them away, it makes them scramble a little.
- The personnel: Guard Kevin McDaniels is a solid all-around player who leads the team in scoring with a 13.6 average. Reserves account for 48.6 points per game (most of them from guards Derek Turner and Boobie James and forward Thomas Adams). Forwards Cesar Portillo and Marvin Eackles handle most of the inside play.
James, a former starter at UNLV, is no stranger to Rydalch. They played together for Dixie College.
"We didn't get along all that well," recalls Rydalch. "We got in a fight once. It got broken up before it really got going. We ended up getting along okay. We roomed next door to each other."
The Rydalch-James reunion might be one more reason to tune in Friday's matchup.