VOL. 10 NO. 3 THE MAGAZINE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH WINTER 2000
HALF FULL OR HALF EMPTY?
Evaluating a new men's basketball roster
By J.D. Davis
With only one starter returning, two All-Conference performersAlex Jensen and Hanno Mottolalong gone, and just three letter-winners from last season, it might seem on paper that the 2000-01 season could be a rebuilding year for the Runnin' Utes men's basketball team. On paper, it also looks like the Runnin' Utes are reloading with new talent and familiar faces and will be ready to earn their seventh straight conference championship.
Glass half full or half empty?
At times it seems that Rick Majerus' glass is bone dry. A pre-season ritual for Ute fans is hearing the coach express his team's weaknesses, as if they might not win a game all year. Seasoned Ute fans usually let this discourse go in one ear and out the other because at the end of the season, talk is about where the Utes will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. Still, with a number of key questions concerning this year's squad unanswered, it's safe to say that all ears are open.
Senior center Nate Althoff returns as the team's lone starter, as well as its leading scorer and rebounder. He also led the team in blocked shots and is the sixth all-time shot swatter in Ute history. Althoff set a single-season Ute field-goal percentage record last year (60.1 percent), and he has improved his scoring and rebounding totals in each of his first three seasons, a trend that should continue this year. "I would like to see Nate play with enthusiasm and have a season similar to Larry Cain's BS'93 MD'97 senior year," says Majerus.
Three other players from last year's team photo return, and each should give the team depth and flexibility at different positions. At 6'9" junior Phil Cullen can play both center and forward. His ability to shoot from long range (37 percent from three-point land) and rebound will be counted on in a variety of roles. Jeff Johnson returns as the team's top defender and most active player. His ability to drive the ball to the basket creates open shots for teammates, and his knack of double pumping in traffic keeps his shot from being blocked. Mike Puzey filled in nicely last season and should do the same this year.
The rest of the team consists of players with a wide range of experience. Some will get their first taste of Division I hoops, while others have played in a national championship game. Where everyone fits in this edition of the Runnin' Utes is pure speculation. So let's speculate.
One of the program's most heralded signees, Britton Johnson, returns for his sophomore year after an LDS church mission. Johnson played a key role in the Utes' drive to the NCAA Finals in 1998. At 6'9" he is a multi-dimensional player who dribbles and passes like a point guard. Johnson's freshman year was slowed by a knee injury that kept him out of the first eight games. More important, he missed most of the pre-season practice time, which is crucial in order to learn basketball the Majerus way. Look for Johnson to play the "three" (small forward) position this season, but not in the traditional forward mold, to take advantage of his guard-like skills.
Chris Burgess, a former McDonald's High School All-American, will join the Utes as a junior after transferring from Duke, where he played in 75 games his first two years. Burgess, who didn't play last season because of the NCAA rule that players must sit out a year if they transfer, gives the team flexibility at the center and forward positions. Pencil in the 6'9" Burgess as the 2000-01 starting power forward (the "four" in Majerus lingo).
To shore up the point guard position, the Utes signed two junior college transfers. Travis Spivey will travel up the hill to join the Utes this season after being named Scenic West Conference Player of the Year for Salt Lake Community College. Kevin Bradley is another playmaker who tore up junior college competition. At Compton Community College, he averaged 18.5 points, 4.9 assists, and 4 boards a game. The south-central Los Angeles native, along with Spivey, will give the Utes a one-two punch at the point. "Both players have a chance to be good defensive players. At this point Spivey is a stronger passer and Bradley is a better shooter," says Majerus. Last season the team's motion offense would work painfully hard to get shots and was seldom able to get easy fast-break buckets. Both Spivey and Bradley have quickness and athleticism, giving the Utes a pair of solid ball handlers who can break down a defense. Because of a complicated motion offense and tight man-to-man defense, playing point for the Utes is no easy task. Ute fans forget Coach Majerus giving Andre Miller an earful of "instructions" during Miller's first season. Look for the pair to get more comfortable by the time the team hits conference play. In the meantime, I suggest they invest in a good set of earplugs.
Also back from an LDS mission is Trace Caton. His last game was the 1998 NCAA Final. As a freshman, Caton played in all 34 games and showed he was not afraid to take, and make, the big shot. He will compete for time at the "two" (shooting guard) position. Nick Jacobsen spent last season redshirting at the U after a stellar high school career at schools in Minnesota and North Dakota. As a senior he averaged 31 points a game and was an honorable mention All-American. He brings to the team a big guard with three-point accuracy. Look for Coach Majerus to give Jacobsen a chance to be the starter.
The Utes landed size and future scoring with the signing of three high school recruits. Jon Godfread is 6'11" and was the North Dakota Player of the Year. Lance Allred was a Utah Gatorade Player of the Year from Salt Lake City's East High School. Marc Jackson, from Olympus High School in Salt Lake City, will probably play his freshman year before serving an LDS church mission. Jackson averaged 27 points a game as a senior and was voted Defensive Player of the Year by the Deseret News, an award that will sit well with the defensive-minded guy in the Reebok sweater.
The last player to join the team this year is Cameron Koford. He last played at Weber State two years ago before serving an LDS church mission. Right now, the only known impact he will have is bringing up the team's average height. Koford is 7'2".
The team's pre-season schedule is "heavier" than in years past, with road games at Texas, Pepperdine, and Utah State. The team will travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a Thanksgiving tournament, possibly matched against Georgia or Stanford, and will have a probable game against USC in the John Wooden Classic. Home games include dates with Louisville, Washington State, and Weber State. And I almost forgot to mention an old favoriteCardinal Stritch will visit the Huntsman Center for a "book-a-win" game.
Of course, the conference championships are where the Utes have dominated. According to Majerus, the Utes are going to have to "scratch and claw" just to be competitive against the Mountain West's top teams. "I'd say BYU and Wyoming are the two top returning teams, with Vegas right up there. We're around fourth," the coach says. He adds, "This is the best BYU team I've seen since I've been at Utah."
Coach Majerus feels the strengths of his team will be size and better perimeter quickness but stresses that the players' unfamiliarity with one another is a giant challenge. "Right now everything is on paper, and paper only covers rock. It doesn't win games. We have more unanswered questions about this team than any since my first year at Utah," says Majerus.
It may take a few pre-season games for the players to get to know one another. But look for the Utes to begin to mesh just in time for conference play, making a run at an eighth straight championship. In the meantime, I'll be at the water cooler, slowly filling my Ute mug to the brim.
J. D. Davis BA'86, whose article on the Einar Nielson Field House appeared in the Summer 1999 Continuum, is a fund-raising consultant.
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