Someone could forgive the University of Utah Runnin' Utes if they feel a little overwhelmed tonight. In a single night they will step into one of the most hallowed arenas in the country to play against the most legendary school in college athletics in one of college basketball's oldest and most traditional tournaments.
It's Utah versus Notre Dame in Madison Square tonight in the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden. This is the place where Ali and Frazier fought and the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter for president. This is where the Stones, Elvis, Sinatra and Pavarotti sang. The Knicks won a world championship here, Jim Ryun ran the mile, Barnum and Bailey circused and the Pope spoke. Ice Capades, mass Moonie marriages, pro rodeos, dog shows - you name it, they've had it in the Garden. This is the place the legendary Red Smith called "the most famous and glamorous arena in creation."No wonder Utah coach Rick Majerus says, "For our kids this will be very big time. Some of them might be a little awestruck, and they should be. The biggest thing one of our kids has seen is the Oakley rodeo."
Of all the teams to find their way to the the Garden and the Final Four, the Utes might be the strangest and unlikeliest. Their starting center is from Tonga, and his backup did prison time. The best player on the team might be the smallest player in the tournament. Their one legitimate star player hasn't played since December, and they have two other regulars with gimpy ankles.
Even Utah's coach is an odd fit. Majerus showed up at the Marriott Marquis for Sunday's press conference/luncheon wearing a white Ute sweatshirt, gray sweat pants and tennis shoes and loving every minute of snubbing decorum and conventionality. The other three Final Four coaches were decked out in suits and ties, slim and trim and ready to talk hoops. The "fat and bald" Majerus - his own description - cracked one-liners in between discussions of his team and answered the day's biggest question: What's a Ute? When a sports writer informed the coach that "We've missed you in the Midwest," Majerus replied, "Are you a restauranteur?" Majerus said he doen't think there are many Ute fans in the area, "Maybe there's a few guys on a (LDS) mission here," Majerus joked. "Maybe they can get the day off and come to the game."
No one soft sells the underdog Utes better than Majerus, but in this case he probably doesn't have to. Sure the Utes have the best record in the Final Four (23-10), but they've also played the easiest schedule. They played only two NCAA Tournament teams all season (UTEP and BYU); Notre Dame, on the other hand, played 10 teams ranked in the final Associated Press poll.
"I'd never want to play that schedule," said Majerus. "It's a killer schedule."
That schedule has helped make the Irish a strong team. They've improved considerably, from a 1-5 start to a 10-3 finish and victories over Syracuse, UCLA and North Carolina.Notre Dame boasts a starting lineup that includes four seniors, and one of them is a probable NBA first-round pick. The Irish, who are the eighth winningest team in NCAA history, also are no strangers to the Garden, where they are 42-18 overall and winners in 15 of their last 19 games there.
John MacLeod, once a regular in the Garden himself, gave up coaching the New York Knicks last year to become Notre Dame's coach. He talked LaPhonso Ellis out of turning pro and into staying for is senior year. He also convinced Ellis to shed 20 pounds and guard Daimon Sweet to lose 40 pounds, and he installed an uptempo game that better suited his players' skills.
Ellis averages 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game and probably will be the toughest player to defend for the undersized Utes. "Size gives us a problem," says Majerus. M'Kay McGrath, who is 6-5, 195 pounds, will defend Ellis, who is 6-8, 240 pounds. To boot, McGrath is still nursing a sprained ankle.
"The ankle is just weak," says McGrath. "I may be tentative about pushing him off the block."
McGrath will have help. Craig Rydalch, Barry Howard and Antoine Davison will take turns guarding Ellis, who has totaled 73 dunks and 82 blocked shots this season. The Utes also will double team Ellis - when they can. Notre Dame has two other good scorers on the guardline in Sweet, who averages 17.2 points per game, and Elmer Bennett, who averages 15.9 points. They will make a double-team on Ellis more difficult.
"The only thing you can do (with Ellis) is try to deny him the ball," says McGrath.
MacLeod probably summed up the key strategic points of tonight's game when he said, "No. 1, we've got to keep them from charging the offensive boards and getting second shots. (And) we've got to be patient on offense and not rush shots. We need to run when the run is there and work the ball in when it's not, because they play defense hard."
The Utes are not a strong offensive team, but they earn a good living on defense and rebounding. They rallied past Ball State and Arizona State, at least partly because they wore them down with their defense and they panicked when they fell behind.
The Irish shoot 50 percent from the field, which makes them considerably more accurate than the Utes (45.6). But they do have a weakness. They've committed an average of 17 turnovers per game.
"I've always liked playing in the Garden," says MacLeod.
And tonight the Utes will get a chance to play in the grand old place themselves.