The school colors are red and white, and the basketball players who wear them are undersized and can't shoot a lick. Somehow they win anyway with terrific defense, rebounding and a deep bench. Their coach is intense and swears like a Marine when the heat is on, which is almost anytime a basketball is around. He believes in man-to-man defense, soft preseason schedules, videotape and education.
Sound familiar?If you think we're talking about the University of Utah and coach Rick Majerus, you're right. If you think we're talking about Ball State and coach Dick Hunsaker, you're right again. The two teams have much in common, and on Thursday night they'll meet in the Huntsman Center in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
It's no accident, of course, that these schools are so alike, or that they've come together in the NIT. Majerus spent two years coaching BSU before leaving for Utah and recommending his assistant, Hunsaker, as his replacement. NIT officials say they matched these teams largely because they wanted to pit Majerus against his old team and his protege, to heck with regional or seeding considerations.
"It was a very well-conceived matchup," says Hunsaker. "This was a game they researched. They were well aware of my background, our team's background and Rick's background. This was a matchup they studied before placing us there. To our fans, it probably rivals or exceeds playing North Carolina in the NCAA."
Majerus left his mark with the Muncie, Ind./Ball State community. When he took over as the Ball State coach in 1988, the Cardinals were coming off a 9-18 season. Majerus hired Hunsaker away from Weber State and led the Cardinals to a 14-14 and 29-3 seasons and to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"He made quite an impression here," says one Muncie sports writer. "A lot of people follow him."
Hunsaker has carried on the program nicely, leading the Cardinals to 26-7, 21-10 and 24-8 seasons and three more post-season tournament berths. BSU's four consecutive post-season berths is a Mid-America Conference record.
"Majerus and Hunsaker are carbon-copy coaches," says Doug Zaleski, who has covered both coaches for the Muncie Evening Press. Of Thursday's game, he says, "It will be like watching Utah (for Utah fans)."
The 37-year-old Hunsaker, who attended high school in New Mexico and took degrees from Weber State and BYU, served as an assistant coach for 10 years at Weber and then two more years at Ball State. During those two short years with Majerus, Hunsaker gained respect for the Majerus genius. Looking ahead to this week's matchup with some trepidation, he told reporters, "I don't want to trade strategic blows with Rick Majerus."
Yet Hunsaker apparently has developed a savvy of his own. He has only four players remaining who were coached and/or recruited by Majerus, and he has developed a team that is a mirror image of a Majerus team. The Cardinals play 10 players an average of 10 or more minutes each game; so do the Utes. The Cardinals shoot only 44 percent from the field; the Utes shoot 45 percent. Cardinal opponents shoot just 42 percent from the field and score 59 points per game; Ute opponents shoot 40 percent and score 61 points. The Cardinals outrebound opponents 35-31; the Utes outrebound opponents 37-30. The Cards average 69 points per game; the Utes 68.
No wonder Majerus says, "He's a good coach." Or, "They are a good team, and our styles of play resemble one another.""(Hunsaker) is probably even more intense than Rick," says Zaleski. "He comes out of games and he has a hard time putting thoughts together he's so frazzled."
So the Ball State-Utah matchup will provide Majerus with a curious challenge: a chance to coach against his former players and his top assistant, and, in a sense, himself.
Tickets for the game are still on sale at $14, $10 and $8 (students are $6) at the Huntsman Center ticket office.