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Togetherness key if Utes are to defend WAC title

The six players who represented the University of Utah basketball team in Ireland, Finland and Sweden early last month, going 6-0 against pro teams, will finally practice with the rest of their team starting Saturday, 2-5:30 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.

Saturday is the first day that the NCAA allows its teams to hold preseason practices for the 1997-98 season that begins for Utah with an exhibition game Nov. 4 and with a real preseason game against Cal State-Fullerton in the Huntsman on Nov. 14.Coach Rick Majerus begins his ninth season of Ute practices Saturday and with two scheduled practices on Sunday; weekday workouts will be held 12:30-3:30 p.m.

If reports in Arizona newspapers and Sports Illustrated were correct - and Majerus will neither confirm nor deny - he was very interested in taking the Arizona State job that opened in early September when Bill Frieder resigned under pressure. ASU named only a one-year interim coach, leaving its options open and Utah basketball watchers nervous. Majerus was also reportedly close to taking the Golden State Warriors' job last spring, and his name comes up with increasing frequency for nearly every open high-profile position.

But for this season, 1 A.K. (After Keith), Majerus, who took the Utes to the NCAA's Elite Eight last season with Van Horn, the NBA's No. 2 pick (New Jersey Nets), is still a Utah man, sir.

And even without the 1997 consensus All-American, three-time WAC Player of the Year and Ute and WAC career scoring leader who averaged 22.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while also being a top defender last season, Utah has enough talent to be ranked in the mid-teens in some preseason-magazine NCAA polls.

Three starters are back from a 29-4 team including 6-foot-11 senior center Michael Doleac, one of three players pictured on the cover of The Sporting News' college basketball preview magazine that picks the Utes second to New Mexico in the Mountain Division of the WAC, rating them No. 14. Doleac was first-team All-WAC at 14.4 ppg and 7.7 rpg.

The other starters back are senior swingman Drew Hansen and junior point guard Andre Miller. Hansen is the '97 Playboy Magazine Anson Mount Academic Award winner and averaged 4.5 ppg and 3.3 rpg last season. Miller joined Doleac on the All-WAC defensive team and averaged 9.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg.

There are four other lettermen: sophomore forward Hanno Mottola, who had games of 31, 24, 23, 22 and 16 points in the games in Ireland and Scandinavia; soph guard David Jackson; soph guard Jordie McTavish; and returned LDS missionary Alex Jensen, a 6-9 soph who averaged 6.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg in his 1994-95 freshman season.

The rest of the squad includes 6-11 redshirt freshmen Nate Althoff and Greg Barratt (a returned missionary) and four new freshmen who were named the 16th-best recruiting class in the country by Basketball Weekly Magazine: Jon Carlisle, Trace Caton, Britton Johnsen and Adam Sharp. Basketball Weekly named Johnsen the nation's 13th-best recruit on its annual Top 100 list. A list of the nation's consensus top-50 freshman recruits in The Sporting News lists Johnsen as No. 26.

Majerus, who was to drop back into Salt Lake City Friday after nearly two months of constant traveling with recruiting, speaking engagements and charity functions, etc., says this team has a chance to defend the conference title if the players "pull all their oars together. We would also like to play with an eye toward some type of postseason play," Majerus says.

The first public appearance for the team will be Thursday, Oct. 30, the annual "Night with the Runnin' Utes" at 7:30 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.