CLEVELAND -- The day before an NCAA basketball game, the media gather to interview the players and coaches from each of the competing teams. Such was the case Friday as reporters listened to representatives from Michigan State and Utah talk about today's game that begins at approximately 1:30 p.m. (MST) on CBS-TV.
But almost as popular as the coaches and players Friday at the Cleveland State Convocation Center was a short, skinny guy with glasses named Trevor Jameson.Jameson is the trainer for the Utah basketball team, and it's his job to get players ready to play for the Utes. Jameson may have the toughest job of anyone in this year's tournament, and he was thrust into a new role, fielding questions about the myriad injuries that have befallen the Utes this season.
Unbelievably, the Utes are down to seven scholarship players going into the biggest game of the year against the No. 1-seeded Spartans this afternoon.
In Thursday night's 48-45 win over Saint Louis, the Utes lost starting guard Jeremy Killion to a season-ending knee injury and may have also lost starting center Nate Althoff, who suffered severe back spasms.
Those injuries came on top of Adam Sharp's sprained ankle, which kept him in street clothes Thursday night, Mike Puzey's hairline fracture in his leg, which kept him out for nearly two weeks before Thursday, and Hanno Mottola's thumb and elbow injuries that have bothered him for nearly two months.
How bad off are the Utes?
So bad that Majerus told Puzey, "if your foot falls off, I'm taking you out -- otherwise you're in the game."
So bad that Majerus compares Althoff to looking like Robert Parish when he was 42 years old in the NBA.
So bad that walk-on Brandon Sluga, who has only seen mop-up duty for four years as a Ute, is "a real possibility" to see some action today.
"We only have seven players, and one has a broken leg," said Majerus.
The Utes will certainly have a height advantage with a starting lineup that has no players under 6-foot-4. Majerus said Jeff Johnsen, the hero of Thursday night's game with a 3-pointer that gave Utah the lead for good, will start in place of Killion, alongside Tony Harvey on the guardline. Phil Cullen will start at center along with Alex Jensen and Mottola.
That leaves two reserves, guard Gary Colbert and Puzey, who was noticeably limping up and down the floor Thursday night.
The only other players on the trip are redshirt Nick Jacobson, who would lose a year of eligibility if he played, Sluga and Matt Vivas, a walk-on from Hawaii, who has played in five games this year without scoring.
The problem the Utes will have is keeping up with the quicker Spartans, who are led by all-Americans Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson.
Cleaves is a point guard who averages 11.7 points and 8.0 assists per game. The 6-7 215-pound Peterson averages 16.6 points and 6.3 rebounds and 42.3 percent from 3-point range.
The other MSU starters are guard Charlie Bell (11.9 ppg), center Andre Hutson (9.8 ppg) and forward A.J. Granger (9.0 ppg).
"They're a special college team," said Majerus. "They're athletic, they share the ball, they play well together -- I don't see any discernible weaknesses. They are equal-opportunity assassins."
Another worry to Majerus is the Spartans' depth. They have nine players who averaged double-figure minutes, which gives them a big advantage over the wounded Utes, who can't afford foul trouble.
Utah has been in the position before of facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Two years ago against Arizona in the West Region Finals, the Utes were heavy underdogs against the defending national champions. The day before that game, Majerus promised a few "wrinkles" and the Utes stunned the Wildcats by 25.
However, Majerus says this is a different situation.
"We have a few wrinkles, but this is not a wrinkles thing -- it's a personnel thing," he said. "This is 'where can we get hurt least.' "
Regardless of what happens in today's game, Majerus says he feels good about the Utes' season.
"I may be proudest of this team as any I've coached at Utah, and I mean that sincerely," he said.
NCAA NOTES: The winner of today's game will face the winner of the Kentucky-Syracuse game, which will be played directly before the Utah-MSU game. . . . In 1991, Utah defeated Michigan State 85-84 in a second-round NCAA game. . . . Killion is on crutches, but his injury isn't as bad as it was thought to be at first, when it appeared he might have a torn ligament. He said he was crying on the bench Thursday, "not because of the pain, but because I can't play again and there's nothing I can do about it." . . . The Ute team and boosters were expected to leave on a charter flight tonight after the game. . . . The high in Cleveland Friday was 31 degrees, with a wind chill of 11.