Last summer Utah coach Rick Majerus ran into an NCAA tournament official and asked him why his team kept getting paired in the same bracket with Kentucky. It happened in 1993, 1996 and again last year and every time, the Wildcats eliminated the frustrated Utes and advanced to the Final Four.
Majerus was assured there was no conspiracy against his team, that it was simply a coincidence that the two teams kept getting sent to the same region.
This year the problem was apparently solved when the NCAA put the Utes on the opposite side of the bracket of the Wildcats, much to the relief of the Utes. However for the fourth time in the past six years, the Utes are facing the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament and this time they can only blame themselves.
Tonight at 7:15 p.m. MST in front of 41,000-plus at the Alamodome and a national audience watching on CBS, Utah and Kentucky will play for the national championship.
The 30-3 Utes have worked their way into the finals for the first time in 54 years, despite overwhelming odds. They defeated national champion Arizona last week and knocked off top-ranked North Carolina Saturday night after starting as a No. 3 seed in the West.
The Wildcats have progressed to the finals under first-year coach Tubby Smith after being the No. 2 seed in the South Region.
Despite having their old nemesis standing between them and a national championship, the Utes are downplaying the opponent and focusing on the task at hand.
"It's just the next game on the schedule," shrugged Majerus. "All it is is the same name. It's a different coach and different players. I don't think that because they have Kentucky across their jerseys, it's going to get it done for them."
Ute center Michael Doleac acknowledged that it was disheartening to see Kentucky in the Utes' way the past couple of years. But he pooh-poohed any notion that the Utes will be more motivated because it's Kentucky they're playing in the finals.
"How much more incentive do you need than playing for the national championship?" he said. "I don't know how much more incentive you can have. It would be nice to beat them, but it would be nice to beat anybody in this situation. We are playing for the national title."
"I really don't think we have concerned ourselves much with a rematch with Kentucky," said Drew Hansen. "I think all along we wanted to play the best team."
After defeating defending Arizona and North Carolina in consecutive games, the Utes are feeling as confident as ever.
"Kentucky is playing the best ball in the country right now, and we have to rise to the challenge," said Hansen. "I think we're capable of doing it."
"We figure we can beat anybody now," added Doleac.
This Kentucky team doesn't seem as intimidating as the previous two, at least on the surface. The '96 team featured future NBA players Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Walter McCarty, Tony Delk and Ron Mercer. Last year, Mercer led the Wildcats, along with Anthony Epps, to a 72-59 win over Utah in a game that was tied with 9:40 left at 43-43.
Forward Scott Padgett and guard Wayne Turner started last year along with Jamaal Magliore, who is the backup center to Nazr Mohammed, last year's backup. Allen Edwards was sidelined during last year's NCAA tournament with a hairline fracture of his ankle, while Jeff Sheppard, this year's leading scorer, sat out as a redshirt.
The key to stopping the Wildcats will be keeping the ball out of Sheppard's hands as much as possible, with likely Hansen will be guarding him.
Another key will be stopping big runs that the Wildcats are famous for. So far in the NCAA tournament, they've had runs of 18-5 on South Carolina State, 19-0 on St. Louis, 20-5 on UCLA, 17-1 on Duke and 16-4 against Stanford.
The Utes are hoping an unfortunate distraction stemming from Saturday night's game won't divert their focus for tonight's contest.
After Saturday's game, Utah players accused North Carolina's Mahktar Ndiaye of spitting on freshman Britton Johnsen in the first half of the game. Ndiaye returned the volley by accusing Johnsen of using a racial slur (see story on this page).
With Majerus by his side, Johnsen told his side of the story, after which Majerus excused him and backed his player "100 percent" and even offered to resign if it turned out his player was wrong.
Majerus continued to be in awe of where his team is now, after not even being picked in many top 25s before the season started.
"It's an unbelievable thing," he said. "To be in this game - how many guys have been in this game? To be here, like Kentucky or Duke or Carolina, is almost unfathomable."
And he hopes his team won't be satisfied just getting to the championship game.
"If we lose, we're going to hurt," he said. "We don't want to have an acceptance in the recesses of our minds that it's OK just that we got here. We want to win."
Utah Point Guard
University of Utah
Hometown: Los Angeles
He continues to be the key to the Utes' offense, which has improved dramatically in recent games, thanks to his aggressive play. When he pushes the ball, it gives the Ute offense a new dimension. He has sturggled with his outside shooting during hte tournament (1 for 6 from 3-point range) and zone defenses give him problems. He usually comes up with a couple of steals a game, but he must keep out of foul trouble. He's on track to be tourney MVP.
Utah Shooting Guard
University of Utah
Hometown: Tooele, Utah
He is the comsummate blender and role player; the most unsung player on the Ute team. He's known for his defense, tenacity, leadership and intelligence, as a third-team academic all-American. But he can also shoot, with a team-best 46 percent mark from 3-point range as well as the most 3-pointers on the team.
Utah Small Fowards
University of Utah
Hometown: Centerville, Utah
Jensen is unselfish to a fault, as his coach likes to say, because he rarely looks to shoot unless he is wide open. After coming back from his mission out of shape, he is finally rounding into the same kind of form he showed as a freshman. He is a great defender and usually takes the opponents' best player. He's a superb offensive rebounder.
Utah Big Fowards
University of Utah
Hometown: Helsinki, Finland
The big Finn continues to break out of a late-season mini-slump. Against north Carolina, he came up with one of his driving slam dunks he usually saves for big games on television. Mottola has the ability to shoot outside but sometimes will keep shooting even when he is a little off. He needs to stay in close and help on the boards more often also.
University of Utah
Hometown: Portland, Ore.
He continues to shine in thye postseason, ever since he started growing his goatee. He has averaged nearly 10 foul shots per game, which has made a big difference since he is hitting 90 percent in NCAA play. Although he's the second-youngest of all the starters in today's game, he may exhibit the most leadership on the court of anyone.
Kentucky Point Guard
He is an explosive player who can break down an opponent off the dribble, score or pass off the drive. He's a tough defender as Ute fans will remember how he picked Jordie McTavish clean at a key point in last year's Utah-UK game and went in for a layup. He's not much of an outside threat (just 21 or 56 from the 3-point range this year) and he's a good player to foul late in a close game.
Kentucky Shooting Guard
Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
A lot of folks compare him to former Kentucky player Rex Chapman, because of his outside shooting capability and his jumping ability. He's perhaps the most athletic player on the Wildcats and Utah's Majerus calls him `a career NBA player.' He sat out last year as a redshirt. Despite being a great shiooer, he hits just 69 percent from the foul line.
Kentucky Small Forward
He missed last year's championship game after suffering a hairline fracture five games previous. Edwards is a very versatile player who has played every position except center for the Wildcats. He can shoot with range or drive to the basket. Like others in the starting lineup, he struggles at the foul line (63.9 percent).
Kentucky Big Forward
Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
He shoots extremely well for a player his size (38 percent from 3-point range) and is the only starter above 70 percent from the foul line 84.7 percent. He rebounds well and is second on the team in steals. He may have a little extra incentive since he had a run-in with Rick Majerus last summer and was cut from the U.S. Under-22 team, coached by Majerus.
He possesses an array of offensive skills and has come on strong this year in a starting role. He is a tough rebounder and a good inside shooter. His defense has been lacking sometimes, although he has blocked two shots per game this year. He has dropped 75 pounds since high school, which makes him a much more movile player.