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In a recent poll of Finnish sports journalists, Hanno M�tt�l� was voted the finest basketball player in Finland, which is like being voted the best bartender in Salt Lake City. "It certainly doesn't mean I am famous," the 6'10" senior forward admits. "If I wasn't so tall, I don't think anybody back home would even notice me."
M�tt�l� has a long way to go to attain the national celebrity of Finnish sports icons like hockey's Teemu Selanne and Formula One driver Mika Hakkinen. The Utes just don't get much TV time in Helsinki, or anyplace else outside the Beehive State, despite the fact that their 87-13 record over the last 100 games gives them the top winning percentage in the nation over that span. "We're the answer to a lot of trivia questions," senior forward Alex Jensen says.
For instance, few fans realize that the Utes have produced an NBA lottery pick in each of the last three seasons. If that streak is to be extended beyond Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller, it will likely be M�tt�l� towering over David Stern next June. Utah's top returning scorer (15.3 points a game) and second-best rebounder (5.4) a year ago, M�tt�l� is a classic European big man whose outside shooting and passing are exceptional for his size. Alas, his Scandinavian temperament has never suited his coach, Rick Majerus. "Hanno's got to get rid of that Finnish stone-faced funk," Majerus says. "He needs a more combative attitude. Whenever he backs off, I tell him he's getting too European."
M�tt�l� is surrounded by a mix of solid players who should lead the Utes to their sixth straight regular-season conference title. Tops among them is Jensen, one of college basketball's most underrated players last year. He averaged 12.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists a game and became only the second player in the 30-year history of the Huntsman Center to have a triple double. (The other was Magic Johnson in Michigan State's '79 NCAA semifinal game.)
The biggest challenge, of course, will be finding someone to replace Miller. Majerus initially plans to use the combined talents of Tony Harvey, Trent Whiting and Gary Colbert in what he calls "point guard by competition." Whoever quarterbacks the offense should expect to find M�tt�l� down low more often after his visit to New Jersey this summer to study post moves with Van Horn. M�tt�l� has yet to distinguish himself as Utah's leader the way Van Horn did, and he knows why. "I haven't made the clutch shots to win games like Keith," M�tt�l� says. "That's a mental line I must cross before I can say that my game is complete."
Call it the Finnish line.
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