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UNDERDOG UTES READY FOR IRISH

Less than 24 hours after their latest victory, the University of Utah basketball team stepped off the plane in New York City Saturday night and checked into the Marriott Marquis Hotel just off Broadway. Today the Utes will make final preparations to play in the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament.

On Monday night, Utah, 23-10, will meet Notre Dame, 17-14, in Madison Square Garden in a matchup made in NIT heaven. Three weeks ago, NIT director Jack Powers was saying, "We love to get (Rick) Majerus in New York." He got his wish. Majerus, Utah's volatile, colorful, outspoken coach, will meet the New York press today at noon in what is sure to be a forum for his one-liners.Majerus is only half of the angle for this game. Notre Dame's coach is John MacLeod, who only a year ago was head coach of the New York Knicks.

Notre Dame and Utah will meet at 7 p.m. MST Monday, following the other semifinal matchup between Florida and Virginia. The games will be televised live nationally by ESPN. The winners will meet Wednesday in the championship game, following the consolation game between the semifinal losers.

Utah is no stranger to NIT play or the Final Four. This marks the third time in eight NIT appearances that they have advanced to the Final Four. They won the NIT championship in 1947 and finished second in 1974. The Utes lost in the first round of the NIT in 1987 and '88, but under Majerus they have become a force in post-season play. A year ago they advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Hampered by injuries, the Utes finished no better than fourth in the Western Athletic Conference this season and lost in the second round of the WAC tournament. But in NIT play they have beaten Ball State, Arizona State and Rhode Island to win a trip to New York.

If anyone is an underdog in the Final Four it is the Utes. They are 0-4 against Notre Dame and 0-1 against both Virginia and Florida. And, too, no one has accused Utah of being overly talented. Even after the Utes' win over Rhode Island on Saturday, their own coach was saying, "This just isn't a very good team." And he was referring to the Utes.

Still, the Utes have managed to win 23 games, largely because of defense and rebounding. In national statistics, they rank fourth in field goal percentage defense (.396), seventh in scoring defense (61.2) and 11th in rebound margin (37.2-30.1).

The question is, can their defense stop Notre Dame - a team that is perhaps the most talented they have faced this season? The Irish are also well tested. Their schedule has been rated the most difficult in the country. They played 10 teams ranked in the final Associated Press poll, including Duke, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. After a 1-5 start, they defeated USC, DePaul, North Carolina, Syracuse and UCLA.

"I only know a little about them at this point," said Majerus during Saturday's flight to New York. "I know they have four seniors who have been together four years. Digger Phelps (the former Notre Dame coach) said it was one of his best recruiting classes. I've seen them on TV some. They (fast) break, but they also have a power game."

While Majerus was preoccupied with recruiting, his assistants got a quick start on scouting Notre Dame. They had obtained videotape of the Irish in advance and watched it Saturday morning. "We were told that we would play the winner of the Notre Dame-Purdue game, so we got film of both teams," said Utah assistant Joe Cravens. "The Jazz have been a help, too. They have films of those teams because they're looking at some of their players."

Undoubtedly, one of those players is senior LaPhonso Ellis, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who averages 17.7 ponts and 11.8 rebounds per game. He has totaled a school-record 82 blocked shots this year, not to mention 73 dunks and 22 double-doubles (points-rebounds). He has been invited to compete in the annual collegiate slam-dunk championship during the NCAA Final Four next Sunday.

"Ellis could be a lottery pick in the NBA draft," says Cravens.

The Irish have two other players who are a cut above the rest - point guard Elmer Bennett, a 6-foot point guard who averages 15.9 points and 6.2 assists per game and recently became the school's all-time leading three-point shooter; and guard Daimon Sweet, a 6-5 senior who averages 17.2 points per game.

The other starters are Bill Taylor, a 6-5 freshman forward, and Keith Tower, a 6-11, 250-pound senior center. They average 10 points per game between them.

"We think we got a good chance to win," says Utah forward Craig Rydalch. "We've matured as a team. We're playing well right now."