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Amid all the negative things you could say about the Utah basketball team this year - Keith Van Horn's 45 percent shooting, Ben Caton's 26 percent 3-point shooting, Andre Miller's adventures at the foul line, Michael Doleac's inconsistency inside and the lack of production from the small forward spot - a big positive has been the play of freshman forward Hanno Mottola.

The 6-foot-8, 20-year-old from Finland, has filled in as a backup to both Doleac and Van Horn and come up with some of the most exciting plays of the year. Who can forget his drive down the lane against Arizona, punctuated by a left-handed slam dunk over a bewildered Wildcat. Or how about his baseline drive and slam dunk against Wake Forest, which so infuriated Deacon coach Dave Odom that he turned and knocked a drink all over a couple of surprised folks on press row."He has really played well - I couldn't be more pleased at the direction he's coming," said Ute coach Rick Majerus. "He really is a good kid and is adjusting well. You have to remember he's living in a foreign country and is playing a totally different game than European ball. He's got an unbelievable future."

So how did Majerus end up with a player as talented as Mottola with so many other colleges out there looking at top foreign players?

"A lot of schools wrote or called him, but I was the only coach who went over there," said Majerus. "That was the determining factor."

Mottola agrees and said he also liked the weather here, which is somewhat like Finland and the chance to to play before crowds of 15,000 instead of the 1,500 or so he'd play before in Finland.

After visiting, Majerus thought he had no chance to get him because of impending military service. "I was shocked when he called me," said Majerus, who replied, "I'll take you."

Mottola is averaging 8.5 points per game on an impressive 64 percent shooting, but does lead the team in fouls with 31.

NIGHTMARE: Before playing Wake Forest, Majerus talked about how important Saturday's Colorado State game was and commented how if he could only win one game this week he would choose CSU because it was a conference game.

"My worst nightmare would be to beat Wake Forest and lose to Colorado State," said Majerus, who didn't even consider an even worse nightmare - losses to both Wake Forest and Colorado State.

Perhaps he didn't even think of that scenario because the Utes have never lost back-to- back home games in the seven years he's been at Utah.

SCHEDULING: Majerus often talks about how he'd like to schedule better teams, but that many top teams don't want to have anything to do with the Utes. So how did he get No. 2 Wake Forest to come out to Utah? It seems that a couple of years ago, Majerus ran into Wake Forest's Odom at a Indiana Pacers' practice. They got talking and Odom said he'd like to play a game out west. So they arranged a home-and-home series with Utah going to North Carolina last year and the Demon Deacons coming to Utah this year.

The series could continue because Majerus discussed future games with Wake Forest while Odom and his team were in town this week.

Majerus likes to play games in his old stomping grounds of the Midwest (the Utes will play at Wisconsin-Milwaukee next year) and tries to schedule games in home towns of his players. He's doing all he can to get a game in Oregon next year for Michael Doleac and David Jackson with Oregon State being the best possibility. He also wants games in southern California for Andre Miller and Ashante Johnson, but it will likely be against the likes of Cal State- Fullerton and Cal-Irvine like this year, rather than UCLA and USC, who refuse to play Utah.

But what I can't wait for are the games in Finland (for Mottola) and in Salmon Arms, Canada, where freshman Jordie McTavish hails from.

UTE NOTES: Foul shooting continues to be a problem for the Utes, who led the nation in that category last year. After another poor outing against Wake Forest (15 of 24), Majerus blamed himself, saying, "The fault is probably mine. I'm not allowing enough time for foul shooting in practice" . . . Ashante Johnson, who injured his back in the waning minutes of last week's Cal-Irvine game, is questionable for Saturday's game with Colorado State . . . Ute fans who went to Tucson to see the football team last week, may be going back there again in March.

That's where one of the West subregionals is being played and Utah can't go to the other because it is in Salt Lake City . . . The Utes are averaging 13,879 for six home games so far.



More Big 5

In men's action, Southern Utah defeated Portland 76-70. Meanwhile, in women's games, Utah defeated UTEP 62-43 to open the WAC season, while BYU lost to New Mexico 63-45. Also, Weber State's women fell to Montana State 72-59. For more details, see Page D5.