Michael Doleac was barely 17 years old when he played in his first college basketball game.

He had expected to redshirt his freshman season at the University of Utah and had sat out the first two exhibition games, yet there he was playing against Indiana and its legendary coach, Bobby Knight, in the first round of the Maui Classic in November 1994.Doleac had not been in the game for more than a minute when he got his first chance to score. He took a pass near the top of the key and cranked up a shot from 18 feet . . .

Now, the logical result for this gangly 6-foot-11, 17-year-old from Oregon, who had skipped a year of elementary school and had only started for one year of high school ball, would have been an embarrassing airball and a quick trip back to the bench.

But there's not much logic to the Doleac story. That shot hit nothing but net, and Doleac showed right then and there that he was no ordinary ball player. He went on to score 13 points in his college debut and helped the Utes to one of their biggest regular-season victories ever.

Doleac is now a senior, and even though half of his teammates are older than he is, he is the leader of a No. 7-ranked, 9-0 Ute team. He's a potential first-round NBA draft choice and should land a successful career in the NBA, unless he decides he'd rather go to medical school and become a doctor. His future looks bright regardless of which direction it goes.

This weekend Doleac is finally getting a chance to play a game back home, as the Utes will face Oregon State Saturday night at the Rose Garden, home of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Doleac says it will be a time of mixed feelings. "I'm excited to be able to be home around Christmas and see some old friends," he said. "But as far as basketball goes, it's not going to be that much different from another game."

For many in Portland, it may be their first chance to see Doleac play, considering the relatively few games he played there before coming to Utah.

How Doleac got to where he is now is a most improbable story.

He wasn't groomed from an early age by a frustrated father to become a basketball star. He wasn't one of those kids who goes to every camp possible and plays basketball 365 days a year.

He grew up in Alaska, playing a variety of sports, preferring soccer and baseball but also spending a lot of time skiing, hunting and fishing. Basketball was little more than an afterthought.

Because Doleac was bigger and smarter than kids his age, he skipped the sixth grade, which meant he was much younger than his classmates in junior high and high school - nearly two years in some cases - because of his June birthday. The Doleacs moved to Portland when Michael was a freshman in high school.

He didn't play basketball as a freshman, and his first structured basketball came in an AAU league after that season. He sat the bench as a sophomore at Central Catholic High School, and although he made the varsity as a junior, he scarcely played a lick. But before he even played a minute of his senior season, Doleac had signed a letter of intent with the University of Utah.

What happened is that a friend of a friend of Utah coach Rick Majerus asked the coach to take a look at this tall kid from Oregon. Even Majerus' friend said, "I don't know if he's any good or not." But Majerus decided it was worth a look and he watched Doleac at a camp in California.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Majerus. "I went to see him in Long Beach at Wilson Junior High School. I was the only coach in the gym. I watched him in warmups and I liked his attitude and I saw that he had nice hands and a nice touch. He was big and kind of lumpy, but I talked to him about coming to our camp."

So in August Doleac spent a week at Majerus' camp at the Huntsman Center. Majerus loved the attitude of the big blond kid who showed up every morning for the optional 6:30 a.m. session. After the third day of camp, Majerus had seen enough and took the big 16-year-old outside, sat on a bench with him while the sun set and offered him a scholarship.

Doleac was flabbergasted. He had hardly played a minute of high school basketball and here was a major college program offering him a scholarship. "I had no idea. I had never even thought about playing in college," he said.

Doleac's father, Phil, a Portland dentist, thought he was kidding at first and asked how he knew his son could play in college. "I do this for a living," replied Majerus.

So Doleac signed his letter in November before most colleges knew anything about him. Oregon State, Utah's Saturday opponent, was the only other college that even sent him a letter.

"I was ridiculed in the Portland press," said Majerus of his decision to sign an untested player such as Doleac. But it turned out the Ute coach knew what he was doing.

Suddenly Doleac turned into a basketball player and won all-league and all-state honors after averaging 17 points and 9 rebounds per game in leading Central Catholic to the Oregon state championship.

Because of his youth and inexperience, Doleac was a logical redshirt candidate, which meant he could practice with the team his first year without losing any eligibility. That was Majerus' plan until he figured he couldn't afford to leave Doleac on the bench all season.

As a backup to Ben Melmeth, Doleac averaged 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds while playing 17 minutes per game. The next year he supplanted Melmeth as the starter and upped his totals to 8.6 ppg and 7.7 rebounds. His best game came in an NCAA tourney win over Iowa State when he scored 23 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.

Last year, Doleac nearly doubled his scoring average to 14.4, while keeping his 7.7 rebound average. He was named first-team all-WAC and to the all-WAC defensive team.

Majerus, as he has done with most of his star players, including Keith Van Horn, doesn't hand out a lot of compliments to Doleac. He calls him a "manufactured player" without much athletic ability.

"He doesn't have lift (jumping ability) or quick feet, he's not a shot blocker and he needs to improve his rebounding," the coach said. "But he has a good heart, is smart, and has a real nice shooting touch."

Doleac is off to a decent start this year, although a lot of folks expected better. He's second on the team in scoring at 15.0 per game and is right around his rebound average of the past two years at 7.6. He missed two games with a sprained ankle and an exhibition game for studies.

That something else that sets Doleac apart from most college athletes - he's an extremely diligent student. He has a 3.3 grade-point average in pre-med and this quarter is taking organic chemistry and physics. He has spent the last five days doing little else but study for final exams and Majerus, who encourages his players to put their studies first, had to persuade Doleac to take time to practice with the team.

Majerus hopes that by the Oregon State contest, Doleac will have organic chemistry off his mind and his game improved. "I think when exams are over, he'll be a new guy," the coach said.

Doleac plans to graduate on time in the spring and would like to go to medical school. And what about the NBA? Doleac almost sounds half-hearted about the possibility.

"I wouldn't mind," he said. "If I do, great, and if I don't, I'll go on to graduate school."

But then he adds, "From what people tell me, I have a chance, so I'm going to do the best I possibly can. There's not many chances to play (in the NBA), and it's something I really want to do."

That's the kind of attitude Majerus hopes to see on a regular basis. His biggest complaint with Doleac has been his lack of consistency. Majerus recently challenged him to put together strong back-to-back games - which he did - and now he wants him to make it three straight in Oregon.

"He needs to get more focused. He needs to rebound better. He needs to establish a presence in the paint," says Majerus.

But then he catches himself and realizes he sometimes expects too much from his star center.

"People forget that Mike is only 20 years old. Even I forget."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Michael Doleac

Center

6-11, 265 lbs

Senior

Portland, Ore.

Central Catholic HS

Candidate for Wooden and Naismith awards

Played for USA team in World Championships last summer

Named first-team All-WAC by both coaches and media last season

'97 GTE Academic All-District selection

Career high points: 30 vs. USU (12-10-97)

Career high rebounds: 16 vs. Texas (11-29-95)

Career high blocks: 5 vs. BYU (3-4-95)