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"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 them."
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 tide 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 shooters."
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."
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