When the University of Utah lost to a mediocre Colorado State team by 19 points on its own home court one month ago, it seemed to signal the end of the Utes. They were all but dead. It was their fourth loss in six games and their worst loss ever in the Huntsman Center, and they had been struggling all season.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Utah coach Rick Majerus at the time.He was wrong.
Since then Utah has won six consecutive games and climbed back into the Western Athletic Conference title race. With a 7-3 record (17-5 overall), the Utes are just a half-game behind the three teams tied for first place - BYU, UTEP and New Mexico. They can join the crowd in first place with a win tonight, when they meet none other than Colorado State in Fort Collins in a grudge rematch.
If the Utes beat CSU and then beat BYU in Provo next Thursday, they would have a clear path to the WAC title. They finish the season with four home games.
The Utes appear fully capable of making a strong homestretch run. As assistant coach Jeff Judkins says, "We've got chemistry we didn't have a month and a half ago."
After an early season of trial and error, the old Ute chemistry has returned - the chemistry that helped them win 30 of 34 games last season.
"The CSU loss was a wake-up call," says Ute assistant Joe Cravens. "It was an embarrassment. After that game, we met as a staff and re-evaluated things. When you get beat like that, you second-guess everything."
Just what is it that the Utes have done to save their season? Here are some of the factors that have accounted for their resurgence: PAUL AFEAKI. After suffering through sub-par play and chronic back problems early in the season, Afeaki has emerged as a force. He has scored 17 points in each of the last three games and has had nine or more rebounds in three of the last four games. He has given the Utes an inside game that was non-existent early in the year. That void left the Utes vulnerable when their streaky outside shooting touch desserted them.
"Paul is playing good ball now," says Majerus. "He has decided that he wants to make a run at the NBA, and we think we have him invited to some post-season tournaments. He's rebounding, defending, scoring and blocking shots. He has improved every game."
BRYON WILSON. Long considered a player of immense potential, Wilson was running out of time to realize his promise. That was never more apparent than during back-to-back games against UTEP (4 points) and CSU (1 point). After the latter game, Ute coaches decided to replace him in the starting lineup with sophomore Thomas Wyatt. Wilson's improvement since then has been dramatic. In six games as a reserve he has averaged 14.5 points and six rebounds per game.
"He got the message when we started Wyatt," says Majerus. "And he plays better with Jimmy Soto (another reserve)."
The benching of Wilson only partially accounts for his improvement. Before Wilson was benched, it had become apparent that he was not responding well to Majerus' blunt style and pointed criticisms. He was noticeably tentative. He second-guessed his instincts. He passed up shots. He looked over his shoulder at the bench, worried about incurring his coach's wrath. Majerus saw the same thing, and after the CSU game he decided to do something about it.
"I've taken a step back in criticizing him, particularly his shot selection," says Majerus. "I've tried to keep things simpler and let him err more."
It is significant that Wilson made eight of eight three-point attempts last week.
"They've been letting us play more," says Wilson. "I just didn't want to make a mistake, and get Coach mad and have to sit down. I shouldn't have been worried about it anyway. That's just the way he coaches."
THE OFFENSE. The Utes - and Majerus himself - had to adjust to life without Josh Grant, the WAC's Most Valuable Player last year who is sidelined for the season with an injury. With Grant out and another senior, Craig Rydalch, hobbled, the Utes are without "the two guys who understand the motion game," says Majerus. As a result, Majerus virtually abandoned the motion game in favor of calling plays. This season he gave the Utes 23 plays, compared to six last year. The problem was, through the first half of the season, the Utes simply couldn't score. It took great effort just to get one basket. Nothing flowed. Nothing came easily. They were out of sync.
Like Wilson, the Utes were tentative as a team. They passed up fast-break opportunities that were so obvious that the home crowd would moan. They were a rigid half-court offense that had lost all spontaneity.
The Utes still run a lot of plays, but they are running and utilizing their old motion game more these days, and Majerus has simplified the game plan. They have averaged a respectable 69 points per game in the last six outings.
"After the CSU game we told them to look to break more," says Majerus. "I think I was so into shot selection and plays, and the guys were tightening up. It was almost like they'd say, Now I've got an open shot, I better not miss it. They're more confident now."
Perhaps Majerus' lighter rein has helped. He and his assistants decided to minimize criticism of their players, just as they did with Wilson.
DEFENSE. The Utes have always rebounded and defended well - they lead the WAC in both categories - but they're doing it better than ever these days. Majerus, a diehard man-to-man coach, has employed zone defense to compensate for his team's shortcomings (lack of height, depth, overall athleticism). The Utes are allowing opponents to shoot a meager (and amazing) 38 percent, and they're outrebounding them by an average of 8.5 boards per game.
TIME. Perhaps the biggest reason for the Utes' resurgence is simply time. It took time to adjust to new roles without Grant and Watts. Time to find new scorers, a new lineup, new substitution patterns. Time to develop new players (Antoine Davison). Time to tinker with the offense.
"It's a combination of a lot of little things," says Cravens. The Utes hope it all adds up to another championship."