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U. basketball — a great down year?

When Utah lost to Memphis in the first round of the NIT a week ago, many Ute basketball fans were disappointed. Some were distraught.

Others probably felt it was about time the Utes were put out of the misery of a frustrating season that turned out to be the first non-20-win and non-NCAA tournament Ute season since 1993-94.

The Utes finished 19-12 as co-champions of the Mountain West Conference, acting coach Dick Hunsaker was named MWC Coach of the Year and Nick Jacobson was named Freshman of the Year.

That would a great year for a lot of programs, but for one that had won NCAA first-round games six years running, it was a down year. To some, the Utes were only the fifth-best college team in Utah since they lost to the other four Division I schools, quite a drop for a team that was second in the nation just three years earlier.

The season began strangely with longtime coach Rick Majerus leaving after the first game because of knee problems and got even stranger in midseason when Majerus suffered heart complications the day before his scheduled return. Then a few days later, Majerus announced he wasn't returning for the rest of the year, not because of his knee or heart, but because of his mother's ailing health.

Left holding the bag was Hunsaker, who suffered through early home losses to Weber State and Southern Utah and then had to quell some internal problems in late January when the team lost three straight and was threatening to implode and have the whole season fall apart.

Then suddenly, the Utes became the Utes of old, reeling off seven straight victories in February before falling back with three losses in four games in March, including a semifinal loss to New Mexico in the MWC tournament and an embarrassing loss to Memphis, when the team appeared to be going through the motions.

After that last game, a disappointed Hunsaker officially relinquished his coaching duties to Majerus, who after making the national media rounds hawking a satellite TV package for the NCAA Tournament, came back to meet with Ute players the past few days.

Before he left for Milwaukee Tuesday, Majerus was reluctant to make any assessment of the Utes' season other than to say, "I was proud of the coaches and the players. They had a terrific year as conference co-champs."

Majerus says he saw only a few bits and pieces of Ute games this year and couldn't honestly evaluate the team.

"There's a few obvious things like (Chris) Burgess needs to work on his foul shots and Britton (Johnsen) should be in the weight room," he said. "But the way I see it and they (other Ute coaches) see it are two different things. I'm going to start with a clean slate next year.

Majerus should have a lot to work with in 2001-02, perhaps more overall talent than he's ever had in his 12 years at Utah.

Eleven of the 13 players on this year's roster are returning with just Nate Althoff graduating and freshman Mark Jackson expected to go on an LDS mission. Redshirt center Jon Godfread will join the team next year, along with three players who signed letters of intent last fall and two missionaries who could return to the team.

All five starters return, Johnsen and Phil Cullen at forwards, Burgess at center and Jacobson and Travis Spivey at guards. Perhaps under Majerus, others may get a chance for more playing time, guys like Kevin Bradley, Jeff Johnsen, Trace Caton, Lance Allred, Mike Puzey and Cameron Koford.

The three signees are guards Martin Osimani from Florida and Eric Osmundsen from San Diego and center Chris Jackson from New Mexico. Majerus said he might even sign one more player during the spring signing period next month.

He also said he either has met or would meet with the parents of Jon Carlisle and Brad Crockett, the two returning missionaries, to discuss their options for next year.

That leaves a team that could be well over the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships (the Utes can actually have 14 players because Cullen's tuition is being paid by the Seattle Mariners), but Majerus doesn't seem worried.

"Like I told you last fall, I can guarantee you we'll have 14 players come October 15," he said.

Although no players are in danger of flunking out, Majerus said he was disappointed in the grades of several of his players. "Anything else pales in comparison to the players' academics," he said.

Majerus did say he was especially pleased with the academic progress of Britton Johnsen and Spivey.

The Utes' 2001-02 schedule won't be finalized until the summer, but they'll have home games against Texas, Pepperdine, Boise State, Idaho State, Utah State and Southern Utah, along with the requisite two games against non-Division I schools. No nonconference road games have been solidified except for Weber State, although Majerus said the Utes are close to finalizing a deal to play St. Joseph's, a team that almost upset Stanford in last week's NCAA Tournament.

Under NCAA rules, the Utes can't play in a tournament such as the Puerto Rico Shootout it played in last year, because of the games they'll be playing in Europe. The Europe trip starts May 20 and will last 16 days with stops at the Canary Islands, Barcelona, Spain, and Marseille and Nice, France.

Majerus says he is looking forward to conducting practices with the team again and doesn't believe there are any limits to how much they can practice.

"We could go every day for 24 hours. The guys say they're looking forward to it. We'll see," he said with a laugh.


E-mail: sor@desnews.com