Utah's best man is a groom. This past summer Keith Van Horn, the
two-time WAC player of the year, married classmate Amy Sida at a
ceremony attended by nearly all of his coaches and teammates.
"It was a beautiful wedding," says the 6'9" Van Horn of his Aug.
24 nuptials (the couple have a 17-month-old daughter, Sabrina).
"I'm extremely happy. I love being married, raising my daughter
and being a part of this school."
Salt Lake City's single females--both of them--mourn Van Horn's
forfeited eligibility as a bachelor. Everyone else in town
raises a glass to the Diamond Bar, Calif., native, who has led
the Utes in scoring each of the last three years. Van Horn, who
would most likely have been a top-10 pick in June's NBA draft,
chose to return for his senior year on the Hill, as Utah's
campus is known, to earn his degree, a promise he had made to
his late father, Ken.
"From a monetary standpoint he should have gone [pro]," admits
Utah coach Rick Majerus. "But he's only going to improve with
physical and emotional maturation. I'm ecstatic he's coming
Without Van Horn at power forward the Utes would not be fielding
the best squad in the ever-expanding WAC. With him--and the 21.4
points per game he averaged last year--they have an opportunity
to travel as far in the NCAA tournament as any Utah squad has
since 1944, the year the school won it all. Three other starters
return to accompany Van Horn on the Utes' championship quest:
center Michael Doleac and guards Ben Caton and Andre Miller.
Even so, the team's first practices were something like a
freshman mixer, with seven new names dotting the roster.
"We have kids from all ends of the earth," says the 48-year-old
Majerus, himself a global figure from any angle. "I've got a
freshman guard, Jordie McTavish, from Salmon Arm, British
Columbia, which is a land that time forgot 350 miles northeast
of Vancouver. We lost one of our better big men, Ben Melmeth,
who decided to return home to Australia, but in his place we've
signed a 6'9" kid from Finland [Hanno Mottola]."
As is often the case, Majerus's lineup resembles the cast of
Gilligan's Island: a disparate troop of castaways whom Majerus,
in the role of the Skipper, will mold into a winner. Caton, a
senior predental student who is married and has a newborn
daughter, worked during the summer as a bellhop at a downtown
Salt Lake City hotel. Miller, a former Prop 48 nonqualifier from
Compton, Calif., is regularly shadowed in practice by Utah-bred
guard Drew Hansen, who was miffed last spring when he received
an A-minus in his judicial-process class, which ruined his
perfect 4.0 grade point average. Clearly, the onus is on Van
Horn to be a leader beyond the stat sheet.
"I tell anyone who asks that Keith is an even better person than
he is a player," says Majerus. "And he's a heckuva player."
That he is. Last March, in a game against archrival Brigham
Young that would clinch the regular-season conference title, the
lanky forward scored 38 points, including 16 of 16 from the free
throw line, to lead Utah to a 96-85 win. Van Horn's prowess from
the charity stripe is no surprise. The Utes led the nation in
free throw shooting in '95-96 (78.4%) en route to a 27-7 season
that ended with a Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion
"Statistics are a lot like thong bikinis," Majerus postulates.
"They conceal as much as they reveal. What impresses me most
about Keith's free throw shooting, for example, is not his
average [Van Horn has a career mark of 83.3%]. A lot of guys can
do that, but they choke in the big games. Keith is at his best
in those games."
The biggest game that Majerus's squad will play in '96-97 this
side of the NCAAs takes place on Dec. 31, when All-America
center Tim Duncan leads Wake Forest into town. The Demon Deacons
squeezed by the Utes 60-56 in Winston-Salem last December. "It's
an odd time for such a big game," says Caton, "but then New
Year's Eve is not a very happening night in Utah."
To keep nights hopping at the Huntsman Center, though, Majerus
must make sure his club can clear the glass. In each of the last
two seasons Utah has lost a top rebounder from the year before.
(Forward Alex Jensen, the team's second-leading board man in
1994-95, is serving an 18-month Mormon mission in England and
will return to the program next fall; swingman Brandon Jessie,
who hauled in 5.2 rebounds a game last season, was drafted by
the Connecticut Pride of the CBA in June.) Majerus believes that
good rebounders are hungry players.
"Rebounding is about being a competitor," says the coach, who
has rung up a 151-51 record in seven seasons at Utah, "and I
don't know who the competitors on this team are yet. Keith must
become more committed to rebounding, and so must Doleac. That
may be my biggest worry."
Outside his bedroom window, in the fifth-floor suite of the
campus hotel that Majerus has called home since his first day on
the job, a 100-foot-tall cement U can be seen. At night the
lights that normally illuminate this structure, which rests
against one of the foothills of the Wasatch Range, flash to
signal a Ute victory. The U serves as a reassuring night-light
for Majerus. On those nights when the Utes lose, the letter sits
"When that U is not lit, I'm awfully disappointed," says the
coach. "This team will only be successful if I have a bunch of
guys who are just as disappointed as me when the U is in the
His voice trails off. Otherwise, come March, the team with the
groom will only be bridesmaids.
COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER Miller and a curious cast of Utes have a far-reaching goal: the national title. [Andre Miller in game]
Coach: Rick Majerus
Career record: 250-103 (12 seasons)
Record at Utah: 151-51 (seven seasons)
1995-96 record: 27-7 (final ranking: 12th)
WAC record: 15-3 (first)
PG *Andre Miller, 6'2", Jr.
Led team in assists and steals
SG *Ben Caton, 6'3", Sr.
Shot 86% from the free throw line
SF Ashante Johnson, 6'8", Soph.
Smallest member of WAC's tallest front line
PF *Keith Van Horn, 6'9", Sr.
Could be first three-time WAC player of year
C *Michael Doleac, 6'11", Jr.
Fourth-best rebounder (7.7) in conference
Dec. 7 vs. Arizona
Coach Majerus has never beaten the Wildcats
Dec. 21 vs. Texas
Horns have no big man to hook Van Horn
Dec. 31 vs. Wake Forest
Utes shot only 35.1% in loss to Deacons last season
Jan. 18 at TCU
Van Horn faces Damion Walker in starry matchup
Feb. 1 at New Mexico
Hoping to avenge loss to Lobos in WAC tourney final
PLAYER TO WATCH
"He's a poor man's Sean Elliott," says Utah assistant coach
Donny Daniels of 6'8" swingman Ashante Johnson. "That's
p-o-o-o-o-double-o-r. Ashante still has a long way to go."
Johnson, a sophomore from San Diego who sat out his freshman
season as an NCAA academic nonqualifier, will leap right into
the starting lineup, filling the 3-spot vacated by Brandon
Jessie. As a senior at Scripps Ranch High, Johnson averaged 25.0
points and 10.0 rebounds per game, displaying the same
baseline-to-baseline play that was Jessie's forte with the Utes.
"To say he's the most athletic guy in the gym is a serious
understatement," says senior guard Ben Caton. "Ashante is
aggressive and has a knack for scoring. I'm not sure if he knows
how to set a pick yet, but no one had to teach him how to come