YOU look at them in warmups and, well, they could be more impressive. The Flying Wallendas, they're not. Nobody does any 360-degree dunks. Nobody pretends he's Pete Maravich, spinning the ball on his finger and bouncing it in off his head. You want thrills? You want dunks? Sorry, wrong address. The Utes think a skip-pass is getting wild.
Saturday night at the Alamodome, the Utes presented a strong case in favor of sticking with the basics. They had their plan and they used it. They didn't venture too far from the ordinary, which for them is this: playing it by the book. There was nary a pass off the glass and not a single behind-the-back dribble. Nobody threw a no-look pass. Still, there was enough of what they needed. The Utes advanced to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament by beating No. 1-ranked North Carolina, 65-59."I think we just beat an NBA team, to tell you the truth," said forward Britton Johnsen.
In making it to the championship game against Kentucky, the Utes aren't only on a roll, they're right in style. They're riding the crest of a nationwide move nowadays for teams to get back to basics. Aren't football teams going to black shoes? Aren't basketball teams all wearing high-tops? A look at the faces of any college team in America and it will look like a page out of a 1963 high school yearbook. Nobody's wearing Afros, dreadlocks, Mohawks or ponytails. It's all as conservative as a boarding school.
Not only are the looks conservative, so are the teams. The days when teams would rack up 120 points in a game, firing up 3s faster than you could say Loyola Marymount, are long gone. The best teams in college basketball are working long and hard at doing what they were all told in high school: Don't get fancy.
"We're teaching everyone the game can still be won below the rim," said Johnsen.
That the Utes would be leading the way stands to reason. This is a team that is about as fundamental as you get. How fundamental? The coach actually keeps players on the bench for not playing defense. So much that if you ask them about what they did on their most excellent adventure to the Final Four, they'll tell you they (wow!) watched film and (whoopee!) played cards. The highlight of the trip so far has been a boat ride on the Riverwalk, which is something a 3-year-old could do without being in danger.
"I think what we are feeling now, we got another game on Monday," said coach Rick Majerus. "I feel so bad they can't go out and enjoy it. I told them that. They want to go back to the hotel tonight and they will play some cards and eat pizza and all that kind of stuff. I said enjoy this tonight. Don't give a fleeting thought to Kentucky. We will get together tomorrow and have something ready for you."
For the time being, the Utes are a team whose time has come. A team that is, in many ways, a throwback to the days when you had two guards, two forwards and a big, slow-footed center. They do it the way John Wooden drew it up way back when he was still a high school coach. No messing around. No goofing off. And absolute no hot-dogging.
"Coach kept calling plays out and kept telling us to stay patient and don't get caught up in their dunks," said Johnsen.
And so the Utes did just that. They hunkered in with a basic man-to-man defense. They were patient with their shots. They stuck to conservative short passes. They blocked out on rebounds. They squared up on their shots. It looked like they had been watching too many instructional films - which they probably had.
As a result, the Utes jumped to a 13-4 lead. By the eight-minute mark of the first half they were ahead by 16. Carolina, which began the game firing quick shots in traffic, couldn't cut it to fewer than 13 by the break. In the early second half, with Carolina center Makhtar Ndiaye troubled by three fouls, the Utes went by the book again, going straight after Ndiaye. He fouled out with 15:45 left in the game.
The Tar Heels cut the lead to two with 2:01 to go but never caught up. Andre Miller broke the press, the Utes pulled back to eat up the clock and made five of six free throws in a late stretch to put it out of reach.
Just the way the Wizard of Westwood would have drawn it up.
And so the Utes headed off into the night to a roar of approval and the blare of horns. It wasn't spectacular, but it was efficient. In the process, they proved that just because something's been around a long time doesn't mean it can't work.