LAS VEGAS — A year ago, the Runnin' Utes of the University of Utah were as likely to be an NCAA finalist as Dennis Rodman was to be a Franciscan monk. Now, after what happened at the end of March Madness last season, somebody had better check the nose-ring rules at the monastery.
Utah plays in the Western Athletic Conference, where NCAA tournament dreams usually end somewhere around the second round. Traditionally, the boys of the WAC end up losing to the men of the Pac-10, Big Ten, ACC, SEC or Big East.
So when Utah knocked out defending champion Arizona in the regional final and then beat North Carolina in the semifinals, some viewed the 1998 tournament as a sign that the Apocalypse was, indeed, upon us.
Utah even had a 12-point lead at the half of the title game before the planets got back in alignment and Kentucky rallied to win the national championship.
For many NCAA fans, that ended it. The 1998 tournament was one of those karma things. Maybe this was a higher power's way of giving Salt Lake City something nice before Olympic-gate. Now, Coach Rick Majerus and his team of nice kids who help little old ladies across the street could get back to concentrating on those monumental matchups against Colorado State on ESPN2 at midnight. After all, wasn't the WAC created for midnight games on ESPN2?
Well, it's a year later, March Madness is about to get really insane, and the guys from Utah are still around and, to some people's way of thinking, almost as good as they were a year ago.
Holy Dick Vitale, could this happen again?
Could we be getting to a time when the term Runnin' Utes strikes a note of fear in the hearts of those in Chapel Hill, where the NCAA tournament is not so much an event as a cult experience? Could the sports bars of Tucson and Durham and Westwood start using life-size pictures of Majerus as dartboards?
When Utah beat New Mexico here last Saturday to win the WAC tournament title, it marked the Utes' 22nd consecutive victory. Their record is 27-4, their national ranking is No. 6 and their NCAA tournament future, with a No. 2 seeding in the Midwest, is surprisingly rosy again.
Majerus started the season bad-mouthing his prospects, griping about the three players he lost to Mormon missions and generally sounding like, well, a basketball coach.
For a while, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the Utes, playing games all over the country like a traveling road show and showing the effects, lost four of their first nine games. They couldn't put away Long Beach State until the late minutes and lost a 73-68 decision at Texas. That completed the long road tour and left Majerus in a funk over his decision to schedule the game as a favor to his friend Tom Penders, who was fired before the season.
That was Dec. 12. It was also the last time anybody put an "L" next to the Utes this season.
In fact, as the season wore on, Majerus found that his main problem was disciplining and motivating a team that was routinely winning by 20 points.
The Utes beat San Diego State by 48 on Feb. 11, and the San Diego State coach quit the next day. On Feb. 27, at Salt Lake City, against a New Mexico team that was ranked No. 24 in the country, Utah took a 27-4 lead and won by 30, 77-47. It was All-American guard Andre Miller's final home game, it was on network television in the afternoon (not midnight) and it was an eye-opener for lots of basketball fans who hadn't really been paying attention--again--to the Utes. You could almost hear the whispers of "oh, oh" in basketball hotbeds around the country.
In the WAC semifinal, Majerus got something he might have badly needed--a close game. Tulsa played the Utes into overtime before losing, 64-61, and at halftime and afterward, Majerus lit into his team. His halftime oratory included some hand-banging on a table, which reopened an old cut, which prompted some extra medical efforts afterward (a bigger bandage).
Injured hand or not, Majerus was delighted.
"How can you holler at guys who are winning every game by 20 points or more," he said. "Tulsa played a great game, got our attention. That's why I hate this tournament. No time to prepare. You just survive."
He was particularly vocal to forward Hanno Mottola, the junior from Finland who is one of Utah's scoring stars, but who had a bad night against Tulsa.
"I was pretty rough on Hanno," Majerus said, "and I probably shouldn't have been. . . . Ah, what the hell. He needed it."
The Utah team that will be watched much more closely this time around will be led by Miller, a probable lottery draft pick and a player getting some backing as a possible winner of the Wooden Award. Miller's main supporting cast last year was 6-foot-10 center Michael Doleac, now with the Orlando Magic.