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College Basketball

INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Buried in the Pit

by Kelli Anderson

Posted: Wed February 4, 1998

 
For two days before Utah's showdown on Sunday with New Mexico, Salon A of the Albuquerque Marriott resembled a war room. The Utes' tapes of Lobos games were stacked on a table near a video projector. Walls were papered with diagrams of New Mexico's plays and Utah's counters to them. Flip charts detailing each Lobos starter's strengths and weaknesses stood in the front of the room. It seemed that everything that could possibly be known about New Mexico was contained in that room, and the Utes spent hours committing it to memory.

CB02094.JPG (26k) But all that time spent in preparation still wasn't enough. After leading the game for all but the last 22 seconds, previously undefeated Utah lost 77-74, a victim of the New Mexico press late in the game. In falling to the top threat on their regular-season schedule, the Utes, who are 18-1 and ranked No. 5, exposed flaws in themselves and in the Lobos that suggest neither team is headed for an NCAA regional final.

For Utah, its biggest strength—total preparation—may end up being its biggest weakness. "I spent so much time on defense, I didn't prepare us enough offensively," Utes coach Rick Majerus said after the game. Utah has 17 baseline out-of-bounds plays in its playbook, but Majerus couldn't draw up a single one when the Utes needed to go the length of the court with 4.6 seconds left after the Lobos went up by three. The reason: He was out of timeouts. "I need my timeouts," says Majerus, who used his last one with 59.3 seconds left.

How far can a team go in the NCAAs when it can't rely on sheer athleticism, especially when facing unfamiliar teams on a day's notice, which is the case in the second and fourth rounds of the NCAAs? Last year the Utes had Keith Van Horn and what Majerus says was "a much better team," and made it to the final eight. This year their depth and stifling defense could take them to the Sweet 16—but no further.

The prospects for the 16-3, 12th-ranked Lobos aren't much different. New Mexico, the second-best team in the nation in three-pointers made (9.9 per game), depends on arc artillery to get defenses off the back of 6'8" junior center Kenny Thomas. "We shoot post shots, and we shoot threes," says New Mexico coach Dave Bliss. "We don't shoot too many of those 12-footers, and a lot of that is to protect Kenny." Its offense tends to founder, though, if the threes aren't falling, as it did in the first half against the Utes when the Lobos made only three treys and scored a mere 24 points.

Also, the tremendous home court advantage the Lobos enjoy in the Pit may be a mixed blessing for them come tournament time. New Mexico has won 38 straight over the last 2 1/2 seasons in its deafening hole in the ground but has gone only 15-13 on the road. "We play so many games here [18 last year, 16 this year], we get used to 18,000 people shouting in your favor," says New Mexico senior guard Royce Olney, who knocked down the winning three-pointer against Utah from 22 feet. "On the road we sometimes let little things get us down that we don't sweat at home. I think we almost take it for granted that calls are going to go our way here." (Certainly they did on Sunday. Utes guard Andre Miller was poked in the eye on one play and knocked to the ground on another—both without a whistle—while committing two turnovers in the last 90 seconds.)

While both Utah and New Mexico have teams that deserve to be ranked, this isn't the year either will break into the nation's elite. Says Bliss, speaking perhaps for both teams, "We are only what we are, and when we don't do what we are, we're not even that."

Issue date: February 9, 1998

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