A strange calm had settled over the University of Utah basketball program lately. Why there hadn't been a suspension, injury, temper tantrum or controversy in . . . oh, days. All quiet on the Wasatch Front?
Hardly. As of Thursday's game against Air Force Academy, here is the latest from Uteville: Darroll Wright's on-again-off-again basketball career is off again. Jimmy - Remember me? - Carroll is back in the starting lineup, but Terry Preston is not. Phil Dixon is still missing in action. So is Mark Rydalch's jump shot. Keith Van Horn and Ma Jian are limping. Walk-ons are in again.By the way, the Utes defeated the lowly Falcons 66-57 in the Huntsman Center. To everyone's surprise, it was a close game. The Utes led by just three points at halftime, and with 11:40 to play the Falcons - winless in four league games - tied the score at 43.
Enter Ryan Hunt, a junior from Skyline High School, Salt Lake Community College and the Taiwan mission field. Hunt attends Utah on a scholarship - for academics, not athletics. Last fall he walked on and made the squad, mostly to give the team another warm body for practice. Hunt's only real goal was to get his name stitched on the back of his jersey - a sure sign that a walk-on has arrived at Utah. But, meanwhile, he has impressed teammates and coaches alike with his hustle, defense and shooting.
"In practice, when he plays on the (scout) team, he's a great shooter," says teammate Mark Rydalch. "We tell him to shoot like that in games, but he won't. He passed up a lot of shots tonight."
But not the one that counted. With the score tied at 43, Rydalch started to drive the lane, then kicked the ball outside to Hunt behind the three-point line. Hunt swished the shot.
"That really sparked us," said Tony Block.
Hunt's shot triggered a 17-3 run, and the Utes were never challenged again.
"No one was around; I didn't have a choice," said Hunt, who took only one other shot (and missed) and finished with 3 assists and 2 steals in 20 minutes of action.
Hunt's emergence as a solid player couldn't have come at a better time. Thursday's victory ended a slump in which the Utes had lost three of four games. After falling to BYU in the Huntsman Center on Saturday night, Majerus decided to make changes.
He began with Wright, the team's most talented and troubled player. Majerus scolded Wright on Monday's for his poor play against BYU; Wright left practice in a huff and didn't practice with the team all week. He showed up at the team's shootaround on Thursday and discussed matters with Majerus, but he didn't show up for Thursday's game.
"I assume he's going to quit the team," says Majerus. "I haven't heard from him. That's the way he is in life. He hasn't given me his decision, but he didn't show up for the game and he didn't practice this week. We've done a lot for Darroll. It's time for him to do something for himself."
Majerus has been patient with Wright, who was suspended for three games last year for an incident involving marijuana and again for the first six games this season for a verbal confrontation at a school cafeteria. Since returning to the team, he had been Utah's second leading scorer, averaging 16.8 points per game.
With Dixon still sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury and Ed Johnson suspended for the season, the Utes are back where they started the season: three players short (both players were suspended along with Wright for the cafeteria incident).
No wonder Majerus played an odd assortment of players on Thursday. At one point, his backcourt consisted of two walk-ons - Hunt and Chris Jones. "Hunt was going to play even if Darroll was here, because he plays hard and he's a team player," said Majerus. The coach also moved Rydalch from the off guard spot to point guard in place of Preston, and moved Carroll - who had virtually disappeared since Wright's return - into Rydalch's spot.
But the most effective player of the night - along with Van Horn, who produced a typical performance for him (7 of 11, 18 points, 9 rebounds) and Air Force's Otis Jones (24 points, 12 from the foul line) - was reserve forward Tony Block. Playing 21 minutes, he had career highs in scoring (18 points) and rebounding (11 boards) and just 1 turnover.
Block's deft shooting touch (8 of 14) compensated for another poor shooting night by Rydalch. Just five days after a 3-for-12 outing against BYU, Rydalch made just 1 of 10 shots. "Oh, my gosh," he said when he saw the numbers.
"Air Force is difficult to play," said Block. "They play the way we like to play."
Which made for one rough game. Bodies littered the floor. Ma sprained an ankle and Van Horn bruised a hip crashing to the floor. Block put Charlie Nelson on the floor with an elbow to the gut. Rydalch was knocked hard to the floor.
"It was a wild game," said Majerus.
And it's business as usual at the U.