Utah Adjusting, Winning Despite Distractions
ESPN.com Feature Story
Jan. 31, 2002
By Ed Graney
Nick Jacobson wasn't worried.
OK, so Utah's basketball team had just lost its leading scorer and rebounder and best passer and low post defender. And the Utes were about to open play in one of the nation's most balanced conferences. And they would have to alter their offensive strategy. And the Olympics were coming. And, as their coach likes to say, the campus was surrounded by more chain-link fence than Guantanimo Bay.
And still ...
"I don't think anyone on our team was concerned about how we would play," said Jacobson. "We are a team where different guys step up every night."
It's proving to be a good formula.
Utah -- 15-3 overall, 5-0 in the Mountain West, winner of 12 straight, RPI of 14 -- is off and running and defending and winning, tied with Wyoming atop the conference standings.
Distractions -- be it the loss of center Chris Burgess to a foot injury or the impending arrival of the German bobsled team -- haven't slowed the pursuit of the NCAA Tournament berth that avoided the Utes last season.
"I think the kids have done a great job faced with some adversity," said Utes coach Rick Majerus. "We have really just been piecing things together. We have always defended fairly well. It has always been the basis of our success. You win with defense and rebounding.
"We're doing OK so far, but my philosophy has always been to only worry about the next game. We're a little light on talent, but these guys have come a long way."
By shooting from a long distance.
Utah leads the nation in 3-point shooting at 43.5 percent, a number made possible with talents like Jacobson. The 6-foot-4 sophomore averages a team-high 14.7 points and shoots 51 percent on 3s. There is no doubt focus shifted to the outside once Burgess went down, and could remain there the entire season.
An update: The 6-10 Burgess, who suffered a torn plantar fascia against Texas on Dec. 29, practiced last Friday and felt good. But he could only work for 45 minutes Saturday and, according to Majerus, could barely walk Sunday.
And so Utah marches on, not counting on the center returning.
"They're a different team without Burgess," said San Diego State assistant coach Brian Dutcher, who watched the Aztecs fall 76-70 in Salt Lake City on Jan. 14. "They present different problems now because they leave the post open, play a lot more motion and have five guys on the perimeter who can all shoot. All of a sudden, a (6-4 wing) like Trace Caton becomes tough for a 6-9 guy to defend.
"Hopefully, you're going to win in the low post more than they hurt you on the perimeter. That hasn't happened yet, at least not enough to cost them a game in conference. It's a tradeoff and Utah is winning that tradeoff. It will be interesting to see when they play a team like Wyoming, a team with a lot of size."
That happens Monday when the Cowboys visit for an ESPN2 game. Big or little, with Burgess or without, the fact Utah is defending as well as it has in some time should keep it at or near the top of league.
And yet there is little margin for error in this balanced a conference, where Air Force is scaring the socks off everyone and the difference between SDSU being 1-4 and 4-1 is 13 points.
In other words, everyone can get better.
Phil Cullen is a senior forward for Utah who spent his offseason playing baseball. It shows in stretches. Travis Spivey is the senior point guard who must continue to offer consistent play. Martin Osimani and Eric Osmundson are freshmen guards who need to improve. The Johnsen brothers -- junior Britton and senior Jeff -- must lead on a nightly basis.
"The sign of a great team is having players like the Johnsens," said Dutcher. "They make plays without the ball that win games ... Utah is also like any other team in this conference. It is capable of a long winning streak and is also capable of falling on hard times and losing three or four in a row."
Hasn't happened yet.
Hasn't come close.
Climbing the Mountain
From the top of the Mountain West to the bottom. But how long can the other seven teams keep Air Force down?
The Falcons of second-year coach Joe Scott are 1-4 in conference, but it's not a stretch to say they could be 4-1. There is an overtime loss to Utah, a three-point defeat at New Mexico, a three-point loss at Colorado State and a four-overtime defeat at Wyoming.
All of a sudden, it's no longer about pesky-and-gutsy little Air Force.
The Falcons are, well, just plain good.
"We're young, but we're getting older by the day," said Scott. "The kids believe they can win any game when they step on the court now. We want to get out of the cellar in this league and we have eight more games to do something about that.
"We're trying to change an attitude that has been around here for 20 years. We can win in this league. And if we don't, then we'll just be the same old Air Force. But I don't think that's the way it's going to be."
The Falcons are led by one of the league's best shooters in Lamoni Yazzie (13.4 ppg) and one of its best rebounders in Tom Bellairs (5.2 rpg).
Thought for the Day
San Diego State has the top three scorers -- Randy Holcomb (18.1), Al Faux (17.9) and Tony Bland (17.5) -- in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are 1-4 in league. Translation: Little things (see free-throws, turnovers) still mean more in the big picture of success.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.