SALT LAKE CITY — Mentioning "45" might be controversial to some, but it isn't in Utah — at least not if you're referring to the person who wears the No. 45 jersey for the Utah Jazz.
Considering how many men, women and children now sport Jazz gear with No. 45 on it, we'd better narrow that down.
While President No. 45 (Donald Trump) is a conversational lightning rod, Player No. 45 (Donovan Mitchell) is the sports equivalent of a summer lightning storm rolling over the Wasatch Front.
Because of the way he stormed into Utah and lit up the NBA, Mitchell's successful debut season — let's call him the true rookie of the year — is the sports story of the year in the Beehive State for 2018.
Mitchell won over the hearts of Jazz fans, giving them plenty to cheer for and admire — from his explosive athleticism, dynamic scoring, eye-popping slams (that helped him win the NBA slam dunk crown), amicable personality and inspiring leadership to the way he embraced the community through charity and personal appearances.
As fun as Mitchell made it to be a Jazz fan again, the superstar in the making wasn't the only big story in Utah this year.
Here's a quick look at some of the other top stories, with some comments from the Deseret News staff:
Though the Utes' season didn't get off to a great beginning, they bounced back nicely from a 0-2 Pac-12 start and finished strongly despite losing quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to injuries. Utah won six of its final seven conference games en route to winning the South Division and earning a spot in the Pac-12 championship game for the first time. The Utes came up short against Washington, but their upcoming Holiday Bowl showdown with Northwestern is a much better bowl game than many would've projected after the early stumble. As a bonus: the U. rallied from a 20-point second-half deficit to beat BYU for the eighth-straight time.
While the men's volleyball team had its own terrific season in Provo, the BYU women took it to another level. En route to a Final Four appearance, the Cougars were ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the season and lost just one regular-season match after winning 28 straight. Unfortunately for Heather Olmstead's All-American-loaded roster, top-ranked Stanford exacted revenge on the Cougs in the NCAA semifinals after suffering an early season loss. The men were also stopped two wins shy of winning a national championship in the spring.
"The rookie shall lead them: charismatic Donovan Mitchell makes an instant splash in the NBA and leads the Jazz to a turnaround in the second half of the season that results in a playoff berth," Brandon Judd wrote, referring to the way Utah won 29 of its last 35 games and then went on to beat OKC in the first round of the playoffs. "Jazz story 1A? Rudy Gobert wins DPOY." Gobert's terrific defensive season was enhanced by Jazz story 1AA: Mitchell. As Ryan McDonald put it, "Jazz make playoffs thanks to late surge after losing Gordon Hayward because Donovan Mitchell is great." Joe Ingles' headband, shooting and trash-talking are Jazz stories 1B, 1C and 1D.
Chris Hill retires
Utah's athletic director retired after spending 31 years in charge of sports on the Hill. The outbound AD oversaw the Utes' rise to the Pac-12 from the Mountain West Conference and made hires that helped Utah turn into a power in football and basketball. Hill was replaced by Mark Harlan, ending the longest-standing tenure among NCAA Division I athletic directors.
Utah State football
The Aggies were so good in football this season, going 11-2 with a blowout win over rival BYU and a commanding victory in the New Mexico Bowl, that they lost their head coach (Matt Wells) to Texas Tech. USU took that loss in stride, rehiring beloved ex-coach Gary Andersen.
"His story is well-documented, how he grew up in a poor part of town, hitting golf balls on an old piece of carpet in his garage, became a great junior golfer, unwisely turned pro while in high school, but gradually worked his way up to become the current 10th-ranked golfer in the world," Mike Sorensen explained. "He earned $5.6 million this year and finished in the top 10 of three majors, T-10 at Masters, 5th at U.S. Open and T-9 at British Open. He also made the U.S. Ryder Cup team and had the second-best record of the 12 American players."
Unfortunately for BYU, the most notable moment from 2018 came off the court when the NCAA penalized the men's program, requiring the Cougars to vacate 47 wins because Nick Emery accepted $12,000 in extra benefits from boosters. The story has a happy ending: Emery returned to the basketball team after stepping away for personal reasons for a year and then being sidelined for the first nine games of this season as punishment for his actions.
The Utes didn't make it to the NCAA Tournament, but a fun run in the NIT made their year memorable. Utah, which missed out on the NCAAs for the second year in a row, defeated UC Davis, LSU, Saint Mary's and Western Kentucky before falling to Penn State in the NIT finals at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, former Ute forward Kyle Kuzma played even better as an NBA player than he did in college, getting his pro career off to a solid start with the Lakers.
The biggest story of the season for the Cougars wasn't an early win over then-sixth-ranked Wisconsin. Rather, it was the emergence of freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, who filled in quite nicely for struggling senior Tanner Mangum to help BYU finish 7-6 and win a bowl game after missing out on postseason action in 2017. Wilson completed 18 of 18 passes in the Cougars' 49-18 Potato Bowl win. That helped BYU end the season on a positive note after blowing that three-touchdown lead against the Utes, falling just short of a win at Boise State and losing for a second-straight year to Utah State.
Other big sports stories in 2018 included:4 comments on this story
- BYU cross cross country racked up a second-place finish in the men's NCAA national championships and a seventh-place ranking for the women along wth six All-Americans
- Weber State's football team won 10 games, claimed the Big Sky championship and earned a No. 2 seeding in the FCS playoffs before falling short against Maine in the quarterfinals
- Utah Royals FC giving fans of female soccer something to cheer for in their inaugural season
- The tragic loss of Utah track athlete Lauren McCluskey
- Real Salt Lake returning to the playoffs after re-signing popular veterans Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman and enjoying the rookie of the year campaign of Corey Baird
- Utah earning the USOC's nod to be the nation's bid hopeful for the 2030 Winter Olympics
- Utahn Michelle Maya wins a Golden Glove championship in the first tournament in which women were given the opportunity to fight
- The Utah Warriors give rugby fans a pro team to follow.