"I can't believe people are ranking us," says Utah coach Rick
Majerus as he tucks into a plate of barbecued ribs at a Salt
Lake City meatery. "We have three solid players and seven who
have never played a Division I game. It's Andre Miller, Hanno
Mottola, Alex Jensen and hiding two." Bite, pause. "But if it's
a three-on-three Rucker tournament, we're there with the best of
You might recall Majerus's pessimistic projections about last
year's team, which knocked off two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA
tournament before losing to Kentucky 78-69 in the title game.
Where could they possibly go without Keith Van Horn? How could a
team with five freshmen and only two seniors compete with the
nation's elite teams? But if there's one thing we learned long
ago, it's never to count out a team coached by the big man in
the white sweater. It'll cost you in the office pool.
Not that Majerus doesn't have a valid point about his personnel
deficiencies. In addition to the loss of forward Drew Hansen and
first-round NBA draft pick Michael Doleac to graduation, three
other letter winners--including forward Britton Johnsen, whom
Majerus describes as one of the best athletes he's had at
Utah--left school to begin their two-year Mormon missions. The
Utes' rookie class of three transfers and four freshmen includes
no obvious stars, but then, what first-year Utah class does?
However much he likes to downplay it, Majerus has something few
coaches do: three solid players with championship-game
experience. Point guard Miller, a Wooden Award candidate who
graduated in June with a sociology degree but decided to stay
another year to bolster his draft prospects, played on the U.S.
team in the Goodwill Games this summer and worked on his jumper.
"It's going to be different without Doleac," says Miller of the
departed 6'11" center. "He could really extend a defense. Now
they'll be hunting the guards. But we have a lot of good
Jensen, a junior forward, is one of them, though you would never
guess it. "Alex wins every good-sportsmanship award there is for
passing the ball," Majerus says. "But I told him if he doesn't
shoot this year, we'll get our butts kicked." From 6'10" forward
Mottola, Majerus wants versatility. "He can play the four or the
five or, conceivably, the three," the Utah coach says. "He may
have to play all three."
Majerus says he's convinced he'll never coach in a Final Four
again. His players aren't buying it. The Utes don't have a tough
schedule--aside from WAC rival New Mexico, the big hurdles are
Rhode Island, Texas and Wake Forest--and in any case, a few
losses can sometimes do wonders. "After we lost to UNLV in the
WAC tournament last year, we decided to be the hardest-working
team out there, and we did that," says Jensen. "If we do that
again and get some of the breaks we got last year, you never
know, it could happen again."
POS. HT. CLASS KEY STAT
SF [**]Alex Jensen 6'9" Jr. 6.8 ppg
PF [**]Hanno Mottola 6'10" Jr. 12.5 ppg
C Nate Althoff 6'11" So. 1.8 ppg
SG Jeremy Killion 6'1" Jr. 27.0 ppg*
PG [**]Andre Miller 6'2" Sr. 14.2 ppg
'97-98 record: 30-4 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 2
[**]Returning starter *ppg as junior college sophomore