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The Wasatch mountain range is a succession of sunlit promontories that almost encircle the University of Utah campus like a snowy necklace. The Wasatch Front was formed after years of upheaval beneath the placid surface of a giant lake, and in a classic case of life imitating geology, it was in much the same manner that the towering front line of the Utes' basketball team was forged.
After three seasons of playing together with varying degrees of suspicion and success, 6'7" forwards Danny Vranes and Karl Bankowski and 6'9" Center Tom Chambers have finally formed a united front. Together, Utah's three tall peaks now form perhaps the country's best forward wall, one that has a lot in common with the Wasatch Front: it's big, white and imposing.
When the season began, it appeared that Vranes and Chambers would have to shoulder most of the load for the Utes, just as they had done the two previous years. San Diego State Coach David (Smokey) Gaines called them "one of the best front-line tandems I've seen in college basketball," and then said almost in passing that Bankowski was "steady and fundamentally mistakeproof." But Bankowski has been more valuable than his 13.2 points a game indicate. "Bank is a fighter," says Utah Coach Jerry Pimm. "When things get tough, he really gets cranked up." While Utah was lackadaisically crushing out-manned New Mexico 90-73 last week, Bankowski became so frustrated by the Utes' sloppy performance that he wound up in a bench-clearing no-punch fight with the Lobos' Phil Smith. In the next game, a 69-59 victory over UTEP, Bankowski had a heated exchange with the Miners' Fred Reynolds. "Karl is so hard-nosed that he just refuses to let anybody take advantage of him," says Vranes. "It's important to have somebody like that on your side."
Vranes and Chambers aren't too bad to have on your side, either. Chambers followed a 27-point, 13-rebound performance against New Mexico with 14 points in the win against UTEP. Vranes contributed 29 points and 17 rebounds in the two home wins, helping to push Utah's overall record to 23-2. At week's end, the Utes were comfortably in first place in the WAC with a 12-1 mark and were ranked seventh in the SI Top 20.
Utah does have guards, although once they have dribbled the ball up the floor you wouldn't always know it. Scott Martin, a 5'11" senior, leads the WAC in assists with an average of eight a game; and 6'6" Pace Mannion may sound like the ruthless-yet-passionate hero of a Barbara Cartland romance but, in fact, he's the league's fourth-best assist man. Martin and Mannion aren't particularly quick or graceful, but they're adept at one thing—getting the ball into the hands of the Utah frontcourt.
Though the three seniors who make up the Utes' forward wall often seem of a piece, each came to his present station by a different—if equally trying—path. Chambers and Vranes, in particular, have a great deal in common, and yet it has taken them three years to feel completely at ease with each other on the court. Both are married and have daughters; both are Mormons from Utah; and entering the New Mexico game, both were scoring 18.3 points a game. Vranes ranked first in the WAC in field-goal shooting (61.2%), Chambers second (60.9%).
Vranes has been a starter for the Utes since he was a freshman, and he also played a great deal on both the U.S. Pan Am and Olympic teams. After having been the star of his high school team in Salt Lake City, he became a local hero when he signed with the Utes. But his image suffered last year when he was linked to the FBI's investigation of phony academic credits being awarded by Ottawa ( Kans.) University to athletes at various schools. Vranes had been advised to take an Ottawa correspondence course in phys ed to maintain his eligibility while he played in the '79 Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico, and though he says he did the work required, Vranes concedes, "There's no doubt it was an easy course. That's why I took it." The results were devastating for Vranes, who was declared ineligible for four games.
As if all of that weren't unpleasant enough, Vranes and Chambers were having trouble playing together. "We got along, but we didn't work well together," says Vranes. "Everybody had his own personality, his own ego. Some guys were worrying more about how many points they scored than how the team did."
"I think our problem in the past was that there were some petty jealousies," says Chambers. "Danny and I have always gotten along, but we would play our own games and it became apparent that we weren't really working together."
It has taken Chambers several years to learn how to fit in, not only with Vranes, but with the whole team. "When he first came to us," says Pimm, "I think he thought more of Tom Chambers than anyone else in the world. Everything has always come so easily to him that he never thought he needed to work hard." Chambers admits as much. "I thought I was a superstar," he says. As much as any other factor, Chambers' new attitude has been responsible for Utah's great success this season.