In October, Rick Majerus was offering to bet a sports writer that his University of Utah basketball team wouldn't finish in the top three of the Western Athletic Conference. In November, he was asking fans to be patient with his young, undertalented team. In December, he was saying the Utes were not a good basketball team. In January, he was hoping to break .500 and maybe sneak into the NIT.
In February, Majerus was backing off on the humble-pie routine, which made sense since the Utes were running away with the WAC championship. In March, the Utes were heading to the NCAA's Sweet 16.If Majerus, Utah's head basketball coach, underestimated the Utes this season, it's about the only thing he got wrong. Majerus guided the Utes all the way to the West Regional semifinals in Seattle, where they gave the defending national champions all they could handle for 28 minutes.
The Utes' Dream Season finally ended with a 17-point loss to unbeaten, No. 1-ranked UNLV last Thursday, but no one was complaining.
"No matter what happens, it's been a great season," said Majerus. That was three weeks ago. After Thursday's loss, he said, "I don't want 20 minutes to destroy all that (the Utes) have accomplished this season."
In the meantime, Majerus' four-year rebuilding plan is about two years ahead of schedule. This year was supposed to be a warmup act. "Next year this thing is really going to take off," he once said, "and in two years it's going to be something special."
But this season turned into something special. The Utes claimed a school- and WAC-record 30 victories - including a record 17-game winning streak - won the WAC championship by four games, came from nowhere to rank 10th in the final national polls, lost only four games all season and won two games in the NCAA tournament.
Some rebuilding season.
The irony is that Majerus is probably right. The '90-91 Utes were not a complete, mature team. They lacked experience, shooters and overall athleticism and size. Indeed, the Utes might very well be better next season, as Majerus has said. They lose just one player to graduation - center Walter Watts. They return Josh Grant - the WAC Player of the Year. First-year guards Tyrone Tate and Byron Wilson will be one year better. Paul Afeaki, who is still relatively new to the sport, has the athletic ability to become a star at center.
What's more, the Utes will have four new players who could immediately and significantly improve the team's level of talent. Three of them were recruited from high school last year but sat out this season as Prop. 48 cases - 6-5 prep All-American Thomas Wyatt, who ranked among the top 15 preps in the country last year, having averaged 27.3 points and 10 rebounds per game; 6-7 Kelly Walker, who averaged 22 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game; and 6-11 Deon Mims, who averaged 18 points, 16 rebounds and 5 blocks. Then there's Antoine Davison, a former Parade All-American and one-time UNLV recruit who averaged 20 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3 blocks for College of Eastern Utah this season.
That foursome could fill Utah's glaring need for more scorers. The Utes already can rebound and play defense with anyone in the country.
The Utes' will have something else working in their favor: a summer basketball tour of Europe. "We're working on it," says Athletic Director Chris Hill. "We'll probably go to Belgium, Germany and England. It's good timing, because so many of the kids are back." The tour should give Utah a head start on next season.