The University of Utah Runnin' Utes had no sooner dispatched Michigan State Sunday night in Tucson, than Coach Rick Majerus was back at work again. Instead of returning to Salt Lake City with his team, he flew directly to Seattle - site of the West Regional finals - to begin homework on his next assignment: The Great Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels.
By all accounts, it's an impossible assignment - the Rebels are 16- to 20-point favorites - but if there is any hope for the Utes it lies in one fact: Majerus, the fanatical, obsessed, driven, brilliant coach, is on their side.In many ways, Thursday night's game is a matchup between Majerus' coaching wits and the Runnin' Rebels raw talent. Immediately following Utah's victory over Michigan State Sunday, many observers - including the Utes' star forward, Josh Grant - were wondering the same thing: What plan would Majerus come up with for the Rebels?
"We have a lot of faith in him," said Grant.
After all, the Utes, underdogs all season, have built their amazing 30-3 record largely because of Majerus' skills of teaching, motivating and preparing.
But the Rebels? Majerus is typically intense. "There will not be a moment between now and Thursday when I won't be thinking about the game," says Majerus. "That's why I'm divorced. That's why I'm fat."
UNLV will be the greatest challenge of Majerus' career. After watching the Rebels win 43 consecutive games and beat their opponents by an average of 24 points per game, some have called UNLV the greatest team ever to play the game and a team fit for the National Basketball Association and the Olympic Games.
So how can the Utes beat the Rebels? "I'm not going to give away my game plan," says Majerus. "What general does that?"
Majerus, who has spent the past couple of days in the Seattle Hilton watching videotape and talking via phone to other coaches who have faced the Rebels, is nothing if not impressed by UNLV. He became so discouraged watching a tape of UNLV's 30-point rout of Duke in last year's NCAA championship game that he now refuses to watch it.
"I judge greatness by lottery picks or first-round draft picks," says Majerus. "They have Larry Johnson; he's a lottery pick. Stacey Augmon is probably a lottery pick, or at least a first-rounder. And Anderson Hunt, he'll be a first-rounder when he comes out . . . They've got a great outside game, a great inside game, a great transition game, a great rebounding game, a great defensive game. I don't know what could be identified as a weakness, and I've been looking."
Despite Majerus' claims to the contrary, Utah can match the size of UNLV's starting lineup fairly well, but quickness, athleticism and strength are other matters. Aside from that, the Rebels still present several problems for Majerus and the Utes.
For starters, they run a full- and half-court pressure defense. The Utes confronted such a defense for the first time last week when they met South Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tournament and committed a season-high 23 turnovers. "But only four in the second half," says Majerus. "I think we may have gotten some things ironed out there."
At the other end of the court, the Utes play man-to-man defense, but when the ball goes to certain key players they like to double team or sag off until the ball goes elsewhere. But against the Rebels, who can a defender afford to leave while helping out a teammate? Johnson, an All-American center, averages 22.9 points per game, most of them in the lane. Augmon, an All-American forward, averages 17.2 points, scoring inside and outside. Guard Anderson Hunt averages 17.6 points, mostly from outside. As Majerus says, "When Larry Johnson gets the ball down low, you can't leave Hunt to help out on Johnson."
Majerus also wonders if the Rebels will space the Ute defense so much that they can't double up. For that matter, are the Utes even quick enough to double up in any situation?
If not, the Utes will be left to handle the Rebels one-on-one, a prospect that does not bode well for the former.
So, what to do? Slow it down? Georgetown did just that last Sunday, and kept it close, "but they have Alonzo Mourning (6-foott-10) and (Dikembe) Mutombo (7-2)," says Majerus. On the other hand, a full-blown running game favors the Rebels, who average 99 points per game.
To prepare for Thursday's game in the Kingdome, Majerus watched select videotape of certain UNLV games or portions of them. The Rebels totaled 31 offensive rebounds against Utah State, but only four against Princeton. Guess which tape Majerus is studying? "We got film on the Princeton game today," said Majerus Tuesday. "We want to see what they did."
Majerus is also studying video of teams that played man-to-man defense against the Rebels "because we're a man to man team."
As formidable as the Rebels are, Majerus says, "They're relatively easy to prepare for. They're not as hard to prepare for as Michigan State. They don't do a lot of things. They don't run a lot of plays or sets. They say `We're the Runnin' Rebels, baby, we're coming at you.' You know what they're going to do. They're like the great Wooden teams."Majerus has counted just three UNLV plays while watching video. "I'd say they get 40 percent of their scoring off fastbreaks, 30 percent off offensive rebounds, 20 percent off their opponents' mistakes against the press and 10 percent going one-on-one."
"Our game plan is frighteningly simple," says Majerus' assistant, Kirk Earlywine.
Nevertheless, Majerus says, "We've got a couple of ideas that we think will work. There are a couple of new things we'll try . . . We've got a couple of alignment changes we might make. If we lose, screw it."
Among other things, the Utes might try a box-and-one defense
and/or the new floating zone defense that they used against Michigan State.
Come game time, of course, there is only so much that a game plan can do against the Rebels. As Majerus says, "We could play the best game we've ever played and still lose - and possibly get blown out." That's how good the Rebels are.