It all started here less than a year ago - the Soviet Junior National basketball team facing the Utah Select prep all-stars at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center.
As for the Utah Select Team, a lopsided 104-85 victory on May 16, 1989, started a current undefeated record in international competition as well as an infatuation with a top-quality class of prep-basketball talent, featuring already household names like Kenneth Roberts, Shawn Bradley and Ryan Cuff.As for the Soviets, the loss to Utah Select started a nine-game, year-long losing streak that was intact as the Soviets faced all-stars from the Portland and Seattle area in a late Friday night game in Yakima, Wash.
To resume their young rivalry, Utah Select hosts the Soviet Junior Team 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Huntsman Center. The game serves as the midpoint in the Soviets' 11-games-in-16-days 1990 U.S. tour.
New blood (a half-dozen new players) and new leadership (long-time junior-team coach Valery Platonov was replaced) still hasn't changed fortunes for the Soviets, who take great pride in their athletic achievements and often see successes on playing fields as political statements of sorts.
Comprised of a dozen of the state's top prep basketball players, Utah Select boasts a number of pluses - the team's overall level of talent (including six players bound for NCAA Division I programs); previous playing experience against the Soviets (five players are Select returnees); experience against national and regional all-star competition in invitational and AAU-sponsored games and tournaments; and a carry-over from last year's indoctrination of team play and defense.
And the indoctrination seemed to work last year, too, as Utah Select defeated the Soviets 105-85.
"Maybe it's the cautious coach in me, but I don't feel as good about it this year," said Judge Memorial Coach Jim Yerkovich, who returns for his second season of coaching the Utah Select Team. "I don't think we're as organized; I feel like we're fragmented . . . . There are questions, like if we have the same depth. We certainly don't have the quickness."
When asked to compare the two versions of Utah Select, Yerkovich has always started by singling out the same individuals who are absent this year - a pair of starters in Provo's Mark Durrant (now at BYU) filling in at the wing and Judge's Jimmy Soto (now at the University of Utah) blasting past his Soviet guard counterparts.
And he'll single out other vacancies of players who came off the bench - Timpview's Quincy Lewis (Dixie College), who complimented Soto in quickness and ball-handling; and the physical contributions from the likes of Clearfield's Russell Larson (BYU/LDS mission), American Fork's Jon Miller (Dixie College) and Provo's James Johnson (LDS mission).
Conditioning, complacency following last year's relatively easy win, lack of ball-handling guards - Yerkovich can be quick to list the Select's susceptibilities and deficencies. "The whole key is team play - to make them (the Soviets) play against our set defense."
The Soviets started out their 1990 tour in an 0-for-4 fashion, losing to teams in New York, Tennessee and Indiana (twice). "But that's a deceiving record," warned Yerkovich, mindful that the last loss was a 94-91 defeat at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, against a typcially loaded Indiana all-star team.
Combine the 0-4 start with ending the '89 tour (2-9 record) with five straight defeats - it's a far cry from the 6-4 and 7-2 records posted by the Soviets in 1988 and 1987, respectively.
Guards Yuri Leonov (a starter against Utah last year) and Gert Kullamyae (24 points against Utah) aren't even playing much this go-around, and 7-footer Alexander Okunski is finding himself replaced early - and often - by the more-active Denis Petenev, as the Soviets have gone to a lineup that is quicker, more aggressive, more active and more potent.
But change is neccessary when you're losing - especially when you are the Soviets and you're 0-for-9 against the Americans.
SELECT-SOVIET NOTES: Bingham's Justyn Tebbs, a 6-4 guard, is considered doubtful for the game after suffering a deep thigh bruise earlier this week . . . . Two dozen of the state's prep basketball players will compete in a slam-dunk competition in conjunction with the exhibition. Preliminary competition starts at 6:30 p.m., with the five finalists competing at halftime . . . . First-year Soviet head coach Stanislav Eremin was a member of the Soviet Olympic Team from the mid '70s to the early '80s . . . .
For his annual scout-the-Soviets trip, Yerkovich attended Tuesday night's game in Memphis, which was replete with throat-grabbing holds, kidney-punching shoving and bench-clearing standoffs after a Memphis sports writer suggested that the Tennessee all-stars have played soft in the past. "It was the ugliest basketball game I've ever seen in my life - it could have been an international incident," said Yerkovich. "That could have been on the cover of "Time" magazine by the time it was all over."