Anyone who saw the Utah basketball team back on that night in late October never would have dreamed in a million years that this squad would end up playing for the national championship five months later.

There was hope that the Utes could perhaps contend for the Western Athletic Conference title it had won three years previously, but that was about the extent of expectations at the beginning of the year.The Utes were trying to cope with the loss of Keith Van Horn after four brilliant years, as well as Ben Caton, whom coach Rick Majerus called the team's best defensive player.

After a sloppy opening on that "Night With the Runnin' Utes" in late October, Majerus said the performance was to be expected.

"It's a little different out here without No. 44," he said. "No one really seems to understand this is not a veteran team. We have three guys who have had unbelievable success and 10 guys who haven't had any success."

Majerus was calling it a rebuilding year, but still the Utes had a good nucleus in Michael Doleac, Drew Hansen and Andre Miller, an improved Hanno Mottola and a key reserve from two years earlier, Alex Jensen, returning from a mission. They had freshman potential in Trace Caton, Jon Carlisle and Britton Johnsen as well as experienced backup guards in David Jackson and Jordie McTavish.

They started winning during an easy preseason schedule that included only a couple of tough contests, at Wake Forest, and Providence in the Great Eight Classic in Chicago. Even against teams that ended up losing 20 games, such as Southern Utah and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Utes had to break away from tie games in the final 10 minutes to win.

The Utes picked up steam when the WAC season opened, and by the time they went to Albuquerque on Feb. 1, they were the only unbeaten team in the nation at 18-0 - a school record - and ranked No. 4 in the country.

They lost that game in a controversial finish and lost two weeks later at Laramie, when they blew an 11-point second-half lead.

Utah went into the WAC tournament at 25-2 and still ranked No. 4 but couldn't handle UNLV on its home court and went home early with a 54-51 loss.

That defeat actually proved to be a catalyst for the Utes, who regrouped and used the extra couple of days off to rest and get ready for the NCAAs.

Utah received the No. 3 seed in the West Regionals in Boise and, after toying with San Francisco 85-68, survived a tough game from a pressing Arkansas team 75-69.

The next week, the Utes hung on to beat West Viginia. Then came the shocker - a 76-51 win over defending national champion Arizona. That propelled the Utes into the Final Four for the first time in 32 years, and they headed to San Antonio full of confidence.

The end of the road was expected to come against No. 1-ranked North Carolina, but the Utes played almost flawlessly in the first half in taking a 35-22 lead, and they hung on for a 65-59 victory.

They went into Monday night's final full of confidence and, for a half, looked to be on their way to a national title. Alas, they couldn't keep it going in the second half and fell to Kentucky for the third straight year. The Utes' 30-4 final mark tied the 1990-91 team for the best record in school history.

Majerus said he didn't want his team to be satisfied with just being in the title game, and the players as well as the coach showed how hard the loss hurt afterward.

"I'll remember losing tonight for the rest of my life," said Majerus. "But someday I'll be lying on a beach somewhere and I'll look back and say, `Boy, was that a great season.' "