Rick Majerus said he had something up his sleeve, but everyone assumed it was a hospitality room doughnut.
“A little plan,” was how Majerus described it on the eve of Utah’s seemingly doomed challenge of reigning NCAA champion Arizona in Saturday’s West Regional final at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.
“A little wrinkle our kids feel good about.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, was the consensus response. Unless Majerus could persuade Lute Olson to switch the afternoon’s activity from basketball to chess or pie-eating, there was no conceivable strategy that could save the Utes from their designated appointment with tournament elimination.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and how about this for a little wrinkle?
Utah 76, Arizona 51.
If that one’s tough to swallow, try this:
Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, the first-team All-American backcourt from Arizona--a combined four for 24 from the field.
Arizona, returning all five starters from the 1997 NCAA championship squad, shoots 28.3% as a team; is outrebounded, 49-34; is held to a season-low 51 points; is handed its worst NCAA tournament defeat on a day when the Wildcats were already planning Tex-Mex feasts at the Final Four in San Antonio.
Instead, Majerus will be chowing down in the shadow of the Alamodome--better fire up the fajita skillets today--after his Utes made a meal and more of the most arrogant--and possibly most talented--college basketball team in the land.
Utah (29-3) becomes the first Western Athletic Conference team to reach the Final Four in 32 years, when Utah broke through in 1966. That year, the Utes lost to eventual NCAA champion Texas Western (now Texas El Paso), 85-78.
A generation later, the Stunnin’ Utes accomplished the unthinkable with a strategic stroke that was either genius or madness--with Majerus ordering the Utes to scrap their usual man-to-man defense in favor of a gimmicky triangle-and-two that featured Utah’s two tallest players, 6-foot-11 Michael Doleac and 6-10 Hanno Mottola, stationed out on the wings, with 6-7 Alex Jensen assigned to chase down Simon.
“When Coach said in practice, ‘We’re going to run Defense 66,’ we looked at him like he was crazy,” Utah guard Andre Miller said. “We ran that against UNLV and we lost.
“We started working on it in practice and the walk-ons were scoring on us. I though Coach was crazy. I thought Arizona was going to score 100.”
Doleac, a first-team Academic All-American, stroked his chin and had to wonder as well.
“When he first told us we were going to go with 66, my first thought was, ‘OK, let’s give it a try.’ But I figured Arizona would shoot 1.000. I thought they’d score a couple quick baskets and we go back to man-to-man.
“But,” Doleac added with no small amazement in his voice, “it worked. It worked, so we had to stay with it.”
It completely discombobulated the Wildcats (30-5), turning Arizona’s trio of trusty marksmen--Bibby, Simon and Michael Dickerson--into the proverbial gang that couldn’t throw a pea into the Pond.
In Majerus’ triangle-and-two scheme, Miller and Jensen were the floaters, assigned to Bibby and Simon, respectively.
“We were not going to let their guards beat us. We felt we had to take Bibby out of the game.”
The triangle-and-two took Bibby so far out of the game, he might as well have been stranded on the 57 Freeway, waiting for Olson to send him a cab. Bibby was three for 15 from the field, 0 for 7 on three-point attempts, finishing with a paltry seven points.
Simon was one for nine--0 for 3 from three-point range--with six points, and Dickerson, Arizona’s leading scorer this season with an 18.5 average, was two for 12 for six points.
All told, Arizona’s top three offensive weapons shot a combined six for 36 from the field--an astonishing 16.7%--and were shut out from three-point territory, 0 for 13 overall.
“They did a great job denying the ball from our guards,” Simon said. “Their defense was everywhere we were on the court.
“They ran the triangle-and-two almost the whole game and kept fresh players on myself and Mike Bibby. They were running guys in and out on us all game. We never exploited it or took advantage of any openings we had.”
With Miller and Jensen hawking Arizona’s backcourt into oblivion, Dickerson became the Wildcat most likely to exploit the Utah defense. But such responsibility did not sit comfortably with Dickerson, who was casting up bricks when he wasn’t altering his shot to launch the ball over the long arms of Doleac and Mottola.
“We’ve had nights when one of them didn’t shoot well and nights when two of them didn’t shoot well,” Olson said, “but the worst possible scenario is when all three don’t shoot well. . . .
“The shots were there” for Dickerson, Olson added. “The shots he normally makes were there.”
Miller was named most outstanding player of the West Regional, finishing Saturday’s game with the statistical line of his life: 18 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, only three turnovers while running the Utah offense to peak methodical efficiency.
Doleac, Jensen and Mottola also made the all-regional team. Doleac finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, Jensen had 11 points and 10 rebounds and Mottola had 14 points on seven-for-12 shooting.
It is not the most formidable lineup to march into a Final Four--Majerus believes last year’s Utah team, with Keith Van Horn, was stronger--but few have ever qualified by better adhering to a defensive game plan.
“We do have weaknesses,” Majerus allowed, “but we also have strengths. These kids defended their butts off today. We’re here because we defend.”