You've got to hand it to the Utes. They're sticking to their story. They're playing that underdog role for all its worth, and they're doing it with straight faces, too. They've played the Look-at-Poor-Us angle all the way to tonight's Final Four, so why stop now? They're going with the theme that brought them here - Give us your tired, your slow, your unwanted, your unathletic. They make a point of reminding you every few minutes that they're not much to look at - we don't even dunk, they un-boast - and if they want to pass themselves off as a bunch of lurps, then who are we to argue? Their secret's safe with us.
The Utes claimed a major victory at Friday's Final Four press conferences when they beat three other teams for the highly coveted role of underdog. They faced a minor threat when North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge made a heroic bid for the part by referring to his team as overachievers and underdogs.Overachievers? Underdogs? Earth to Bill: The Tar Heels are the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Hellll-looo.
Maybe Guthridge, whose team plays Utah tonight, was confused and mistook the Utes for somebody else. Asked about his opponent, he said, "They are 10 deep, and Greg certainly uses them well."
One question: Who's Greg?
The Utes are so good at the art of the undersell that you can easily overlook them and forget their names. And that's the beauty of it. That's the point.
The Utes have a nice little setup going, a nice little con. Underestimate them, then lose. They're masters of the undersell. Masters of humility and self-deprecation. Ask them how they won 29 of 32 games, and they shrug, "Search me. Our GPAs?" They're going strictly low profile.
Last November coach Rick Majerus said the Utes were not a good team, and managed not to snicker. He's good. But Majerus and the Utes really went to the hard sell on the undersell once they reached the NCAA tournament. They hit their stride in March, when Majerus played the part for national media consumption.
He can't recruit big-time players for Utah, he said. The state is all wrong for luring young basketball players to Utah. Too small, too white, too cold, too dry, too, too, too. Salt Lake City is Hickville and Dudsville, all rolled into one. It's against the law to have fun. Nobody parties. Nobody boo-gies. Kids don't want to come there (guess they'd rather go to the big cities like Lincoln, College Station, Durham and Stillwater, where the action is).
His players are too caucasian.
His players are too nice. (Too nice? Well, yes, Majerus says just once he'd like to have an "assassin.")
His players are student-athletes. With emphasis on the latter. The Utes are too busy studying to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons and Presidents to take basketball seriously. They practice when they can squeeze it in. They didn't even know what a basketball was until November. They just hope the other team wants to play Twenty Questions instead of basketball.
His players aren't athletic. Can't run. Can't jump. Can't make it to the bathroom without help.
Nobody wanted his players. They weren't good enough. No one else would recruit them. No one could find them. No one even heard of them. They're all hayseeds, guys from Centerville, and Salmon Arm and Tooele or Toolie or whatever.
Majerus' players know the party line, too. They've got it down pat. "We are not a bunch of high-flying players," Drew Hansen said this week. "On the (fast)break, we probably have to be a step ahead to begin with because we aren't going to outrun many teams."
Right. The Utes embrace their poor-boy image.
"We're not as athletic as Carolina," said Jordie McTavish.
The more warts they can point to, the better.
"We're not an impressive team to look at," says center Michael Doleac. "We play a different style of basketball, I guess. There's not a lot of guys catching lobs and dunking . . . We're not the most talented team, but we're out there working hard."
So far, everyone is buying the Utes' woe-is-me plea, the media especially, although there was a close call on Friday that almost blew the Utes' cover. "Utah is a very underrated as an athletic team. I think they are a very athletic team," said Guthridge.
Maybe he meant Greg's team.
Antawn Jamison, North Carolina's superstar, also seemed a little suspicious. "Most people give Utah a lot of the stuff about being so big and slow and things like that. But the guys can run up and down the court."
OK, who told him?
So here they are, the Utes are in the Final Four, even if nobody knows how they got here. The Utes aren't saying anything. They're still laying low.
"We're just takin' that humble approach, man," said David Jackson, the Ute guard. "People root for underdogs, and they don't get on you as bad if you lose."
Just don't tell anybody. It's the Utes' little secret.