LEST ANYONE SUSPECT that the beleaguered University of Utah basketball team was anxious to get a jump on the offseason, there the Utes were last night, administering CPR in the nick of time to defeat San Diego State 70-57 in the WAC tournament's dreaded "Last Place Game."
The eighth-seeded Utes thus move into a prime time tournament game tonight against top-seeded Colorado State. In this business, there's no rest for the victorious. And there's plenty of rest for the vanquished. As Ute guard Van Gray put it, "We're just trying to win, so we can have a chance to win again."By beating San Diego State, a beleaguered team in its own right, the Utes did manage to put an end to their month-long dry spell at the Huntsman Center, their homecourt.
Still, only a mere 5,508 showed up to see it happen. The other two-thirds of the arena was as silent as a majority.
The month of March can be tough for a basketball team that was a preseason favorite to win the league - and didn't come close. Such is the Utes' current plight. They're 16-and-16 now, and they were supposed to be something like 26-and-6.
Not surprisingly, head coach Lynn Archibald is enduring considerable heat, albeit unofficial. He says he has had no contact from the school administration that they're displeased with his work. "Not one iota," he says. "Nobody's said a word to me."
Unofficially, however, his job status is as publicly debated these days as an Eastern Air Lines mechanic.
Just Wednesday morning, in Utah's student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, there was an editorial urging the coach to, well, you know, find gainful employment somewhere else.
In an open-letter, a columnist named Loren Jorgensen urged Archibald to resign. He praised the coach as "A nice person," but concluded, "I'm not the first to suggest this, and I probably won't be the last, but maybe it's time you and the Ute basketball program parted ways."
Jorgensen signed off as "A loyal Ute fan."
But quite obviously not a loyal Archibald fan.
Archibald read the column Wednesday morning.
"I thought it was a pretty good article - until that last part," he deadpanned.
The Ute players read the article as well, and some of them worked themselves into varying degrees of disgust and dismay. Freshman forward Josh Grant, in particular, had a problem with the resignation recommendation.
"It was pretty stupid," Grant said of the article. "He (Jorgensen) doesn't know what he's talking about. He thinks he knows basketball. He's just a punk."
Grant, whose older brother Greg is a coach on Archibald's staff, decided to exercise his first amendment rights of rebuttal by scoring a game-high 19 points against the Aztecs, in addition to pulling down six rebounds, delivering three assists, and grabbing six steals.
"Aw, every fan in Utah thinks he's the world's greatest basketball coach," said Grant.
He also said, "When your record's like ours, you'll take anything to get you up."
Mitch Smith, the Utes' leading scorer and rebounder, who scored 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Aztecs, took exception with Jorgensen calling himself "A loyal Ute fan."
"I don't think he'd write that if he was a true Ute fan," said Smith.
Then again, Jorgensen had more support Wednesday night than Archibald and his Utes - if the occupied seats-empty seats ratio meant anything.
"I'm just glad this game's over," said Archibald, admitting that playing in the 8th place-9th place game wasn't exactly one of Utah's preseason goals. Especially not in its own gym.
"But now it can work to our advantage," said the coach. "Now we're better prepared mentally for Colorado State."
That's looking on the bright side. Brighter yet, for Utah, would be survival again tonight, and Friday night, and a berth in the tournament final Saturday night. By which time all Huntsman Center seats would undoubtedly be re-occupied, and Archibald and his Utes would again find themselves in the esteemed company of 15,000 of the world's greatest basketball coaches.