Utah assistant coach Jeff Judkins knew everything there was to know about NCAA tournament entrant Nebraska two weeks ago.
Judkins could tell you that Tyronn Lue was as good as any point guard the Utes had faced all year. He knew that Lue's backcourt mate, Cookie Belcher, had a solid game besides a great name. He could tell you that Andy Markowsi (37 percent free-throw shooter) was the best player to foul and which way center Venson Hamilton liked to turn in the pivot."I knew Nebraska inside and out," said Judkins.
The only thing was, the Utes never used a bit of Judkins' extensive knowledge because Nebraska lost to Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Boise. However, assistant coach Donny Daniels was an expert on the Razorbacks just like Judkins was on the Cornhuskers, and his insight helped the Utes move into the Sweet 16.
Last week it was Judkins' turn. He was the authority on Arizona, and he helped prepare a game plan that knocked off the defending national champions last Saturday. Now the Utes are busily preparing for the No. 1 team in the country, the North Carolina Tar Heels, whom Utah will meet Saturday night at 6 p.m. at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Utah's upset win over the Wildcats last week was the game plan the Utes came up with to stifle Arizona's all-American guards and free up Andre Miller in the open court.
Plans like those don't come by accident or off the top of Rick Majerus' bald head. They take long hours of preparation that leave Ute coaches with little sleep, particularly at a point where there's no tomorrow after each game.
"This time of year, you're basically beat," said Judkins. "There's a lot of long hours. After the West Virginia game last week, we were up until 3:30 or 4 talking about Arizona. Coach (Majerus) doesn't sleep very much at all during the season."
Majerus prefers that media call him after midnight, and usually he's watching game tapes when they do, whether it's November or March. He always brags about his intelligent players and believes those kinds of players are more apt to accept and understand the schemes and strategies he and his assistants present.
"We're prepared, and I know our players feel that we usually are well-prepared," said Majerus. "I like the way the kids prepare - we give them a game plan, and they carry it out well. I can't fault them for a lack of effort."
Majerus has said that while he may never have the most talented team, he can always have the "best board team," and he's not talking about rebounds (although the Utes happen to be the best rebounding team in the country).
The Utes are famous for their meticulous scouting reports, detailed on chalkboards, which break down every player on the opposing team, showing strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. On the road, where there often aren't chalkboards, all the information is written out on large pieces of butcher paper to display before the games.
"We try to watch as much film as we possibly can," said Judkins. "We'll usually watch the last seven or eight games (of our opponent) and try to watch a game of a team they struggled against earlier in the season."
Judkins said he and fellow assistants Daniels and Brock Brunkhorst, along with video coordinator Jeff Strohm, will watch two or three tapes each and break them down and compile a master tape that shows the "plays, personnel and tendencies" of the team. Then Majerus will watch hours of the tapes himself, and usually two days before the game, the coaches will sit down together to develop a game plan.
"I have terrific assistants," said Majerus. "They lay it all out for me."
At that point, the assistants will start breaking down tape of the next opponent, which is fairly easy during the season. However, during the postseason tournaments, two coaches must take a team - for instance, this week Judkins may take Kentucky and Daniels Stanford - and start preparing for a possible future game.
Although it's been a regular routine for several years for Judkins and Daniels to study future opponents, it doesn't mean they're ever looking past opponents.
"Coach Majerus never looks at an (future) opponent before a game - he won't even talk about it," said Judkins.
The players are certainly aware of the tremendous preparation they receive before every game. Just ask the two seniors.
"They do the best job in the country, bar none," said Drew Hansen. "They break every team down the same way, whether it's the NCAA or the regular season. Mostly it helps us defensively. We know if the other guy likes to shoot a lot or if he'll put in on the floor a lot and dribble. If he likes to go right, we try to get him to go left. . . ."
"That's the best part about this team," added Michael Doleac. "We prepare so well, we're ready to go and know what's coming. The coaches do a great job of preparing us."
But even though he may be the master of coaches at preparing his teams for battle, Majerus is reluctant to take too much credit.
"There's a lot of guys that look good on the board, but at the end of the day, it's the players that win games."
Pep rally planned before Ute departure
Before it takes off for San Antonio and the Final Four this weekend, the Utah basketball team will be honored at a pep rally at the Huntsman Center Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Coach Rick Majerus will speak, a video of the Utes' season will also be shown and cheerleaders will entertain. The public is invited at no charge.