I sat courtside at each game, went to every press conference, talked with all the players, knew all the game plans and I still can't believe what I've witnessed. For three weeks I've been on the road with the Utes, on the road to San Antonio, and nothing has been believable. The heart-stopping, city-energizing, respect-gaining run of the University of Utah Utes was something special.
Monday night the horn sounded and Rick Majerus was not Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers." The run fell a bit short. Still, the three-week adventure that we were taken on by Majerus and his team was truly spectacular. Though the antagonist won again, the script read like a feel-good flick. If not, it was at least a mystery.After the Arkansas game I wrote in this column that the Utes "are not only good, but they may be great." But I didn't mean this great, not 25-point blowout of Arizona great, defeating-the-classic North Carolina great and playing on the final Monday night great.
Defeating the dominating powers of Arizona and North Carolina was beyond my wildest thought.
The Arizona game opened the eyes of the nation, but the victory over North Carolina may have been more impressive. The Utes didn't use a gimmick, they just went out and played their game and said this is what we do, we don't care about your tradition, your history, your NBA careers, and down went the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The final-night loss to Kentucky eliminated any of the final doubters. The Utes could play with and were capable of beating anyone in the country. Stifling defense, superb teamwork and flat-out effort made them capable of overcoming whatever they confronted.
Who was to know? There was nothing to judge this team by. Losses in Laramie and in the WAC tournament had sent up red flags. This was the team most susceptible to an early-round upset. Just a bunch of unathletic, smart kids. They sure to heck can't win basketball games. No way they could beat the athletic No. 1 seeds of Arizona and North Carolina.
When it all started there was no Majerus genius factor. A Majerus-coached Ute team had never beaten a higher-seeded team and, in fact, had once lost to a lower seed. There was no history of triangle-and-two experiments, no history of unseating the giants and grabbing the national spotlight.
It couldn't happen. It was a team without Keith Van Horn, a team that until an Andre Miller explosion against Arkansas was without the superstar, the playmaker, the game-breaker. They were without a man to make "The Plays" - like grabbing a rebound amongst the giants after the Tar Heels had a chance to tie and going coast to coast with a scoring drive to stretch the lead back to four, or the block of a Miles Simon drive and a coast-to-coast miracle to eliminate yet another futile Arizona Wildcat run. The man arrived.
This is where the unbelievable begins to make a bit of sense. The most unlikely of scripts begins to have the slightest legitimacy.
Without Van Horn, the Utes became a team. While every team must have its man, teams win, not individuals. Mike Doleac and Drew Hansen became the leaders, and rather than Mr. All World, Keith Van Horn talking to the players, you had Mr. Heart, Drew Hansen, and Mr. Soul, Mike Doleac.
Success without the superstar was the theme of the 1988 NCAA Tournament. Stanford without Brevin Knight, Kentucky without Ron Mercer and Utah without Van Horn. It is not unprecedented; the Virginia Cavaliers hit the Final Four the year after Ralph Sampson left and Georgia hit paydirt the year after Dominique Wilkins.
Then it happened. The team emerged. In Anaheim, for the first time all year, the Utes were without pressure, without the bull's-eye of being the favorite, and they exploded. They eliminated the Arizona Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels in back-to-back games.
Doleac said, "Of course I've seen `Hoosiers.' It's the greatest underdog story, it's a must for all video libraries."
Assistant coach Jeff Judkins said, "I pulled out `Hoosiers' before the tournament and sat down and watched the whole thing."
They just missed the ending. But, maybe it was better, because we were all a part of it.