Even if it was only an exhibition game against a weary bunch of Europeans, and even if it was Josh Grant's coming out party, there was no overlooking the performance of Phil Dixon Thursday night during the University of Utah's first basketball game of the season.
Dixon, a junior out of Jamaica (born) and Canada (raised), was beyond hot while helping the Utes to an 89-63 rout of the Slovenian national junior team. Playing just 27 minutes, Dixon sank 10 of 12 shots, including six of seven from three-point range, and finished with 26 points."Phil's a good shooter," said Utah coach Rick Majerus in what was the understatement of the night. "He's going to have to step up like that this year."
It almost seemed a waste that Dixon's performance - which would have been a career-high - won't count officially. This was an exhibition game, which means it never really happened. Besides, Slovenia wasn't much of a test.
The Slovenian team represents what used to be part of Czechoslovakia, although you'd never know it to look at them. Their uniforms are thoroughly American, covered as they are with so many American advertisements - Dairy Queen, Snickers, Gatorade, Reebok - that there is no room for their country's name. They staggered into the Huntsman Center Thursday to play their fourth game in as many nights, having already been trashed by Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and Utah State.
To make things even and to squeeze in more work, the Utes practiced for two hours the day of the game. It didn't help much. The Slovenians managed to cut Utah's lead to 52-48 in the second half, but then the Utes broke the game open and it was never close again.
The outcome was actually secondary to several other attractions, namely the reappearance of Grant and the introduction of several new players. Grant, the 1990 Most Valuable Player of the Western Athletic Conference, missed all of last season to recover from knee surgery. He returned to the lineup Thursday without so much as a wrap on the knee and looked every bit the old versatile Grant. He finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one block, two three-point buckets in as many tries and two steals in 24 minutes.
"It was encouraging for Josh," said Majerus. "But you can't miss a year and not feel it."
"The knee is no problem," said Grant. "It feels fine. It's better than it was before."
Grant seemed more concerned with the new mix of his team, which has changed considerably since he was last an official member of the Utes. He and Byron Wilson are the only remaining players who started on the 30-4 team two years ago.
"There is a lot we need to work on," said Grant. "We were a little disoriented out there. You could tell it was the first game."