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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Utah Sophomore Not Ready for Finish Line

West Regional: Hanno Mottola has a game that's rough around the edges, and that's not in physical terms.

March 21, 1998|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The friendly Finn is in finishing school, supposedly picking up the finer points of throwing elbows, talking trash and, yes, slamming home the alley-oop pass.

But Utah's 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, Hanno Mottola, is still too Finnish to employ those tactics.

And that may be his problem.

He sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when he arrived at Utah, he played basketball like one of those European tourists you see backpacking around America's cities, politely asking directions from time to time.

"Yeah, when Hanno first got here, he was a little soft," Utah Coach Rick Majerus said. "He still has a lot of European traits."

Which means?

"The game is very different there," Majerus said. "It's not as physical and there isn't as much quickness."

OK, then why are names like Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc showing up on NBA rosters?

"Basketball is huge in Finland," said Mottola, who grew up in Helsinki. "And it's getting bigger."

Yeah, and how do you say alley-oop in Finnish?

"Alley-oop. NBC's Superchannel shows a couple games during the season," Mottola said. "And during the tournament, the games go all night. You wouldn't believe how knowledgeable the kids are over there about basketball in the U.S."

That may be, but Mottola lists Finnish hockey player Teemu Selanne, the Mighty Ducks' star, as his favorite athlete.

When you're 6-10, though, you don't look for a career in hockey and Mottola--it's pronounced MET-uh-luh--said he knew enough about U.S. basketball to attract more than 30 scholarship offers, one from every top-25 school except Arizona.

He says he doesn't hold that against Wildcat Coach Lute Olson and that it won't enter his mind when Utah plays Arizona in today's West Regional final at the Pond. Mr. Nice Guy to the end.

Last season, Mottola scored 6.4 points and took down 2.8 rebounds as a freshman. Not bad for a first-year player but not so good for a guy 6-10.

Still, he was backing up the greatest player in Utah's history, budding NBA star Keith Van Horn, and was getting only 17 minutes a game.

This season, Mottola has doubled his averages with 12.9 points and 5.5 rebounds.

And Mottola's teammates say he has undergone a subtle Americanization.

"He's learning how to bang underneath," Ute guard Drew Hansen said. "Hanno is becoming more aggressive. His rebounds have gone up this season and Coach Majerus says good rebounding is a direct result of aggressive play."

Off the court, Mottola has had to deal with a different kind of culture shock.

"The problem for Hanno was, he's like E.T., he's [so far] from home," Majerus said. "I mean, we take the team to eat some fish and he's--well, there's no caribou meat on the menu."

Homesick or not, against West Virginia on Thursday, a passive Mottola appeared to be getting tossed around in the post by the Mountaineers' Brent Solheim and Brian Lewin.

He scored only four points and did not have a rebound.

"Everybody has a bad game," Ute center Michael Doleac said. "Listen, this guy has played great for us this season and just because he's a nice guy doesn't mean he doesn't want to win. . . . Everybody on this team is so competitive, right down to our poker games. We enjoy taking each other's money."

Utah players playing poker? For money? Hard to imagine.

Mottola aside, Utah has had one of the cleanest teams in the country. Majerus said recently that his team may be too nice and that it might be a nice change "to coach a mean-spirited player."

"The media portrays us as a bunch of white guys who don't do anything wrong and don't have any athleticism," Mottola said. "I think one of our strengths is that we are nice to one another and communicate. And you don't get to the great eight without any athleticism."

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