THE BRIGHT STUFF

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eleven players made the honor roll, five made the dean's list, two were named to the academic All-American team and one was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship.

They would gladly match IQs and GPA's with North Carolina, Kentucky and even Stanford, yet on the day before their stunning thrashing of 1997 national champion Arizona, members of the Utah men's basketball team--a.k.a. Doleac's Brainiacs--were momentarily at a loss.

For several awkward seconds, a pregame news conference turned into a session of "Stump the Utes" when Michael Doleac, Andre Miller and Drew Hansen were asked if they had been recruited by Arizona.

Doleac, the first-team academic All-American and future orthopedic surgeon, shrugged and stared blankly at Miller. Miller was speechless. Hansen, the Rhodes scholar candidate with the 3.99 GPA in political science and economics, looked positively dumbfounded.

"I wasn't recruited by anybody," Doleac finally said, mercifully breaking the silence.

"I was a Prop. 48," said Miller, who, in the company of the studious Utes, has lifted his grade-point average to 2.6 as a junior. "There were only a few schools willing to take me as a Prop. 48."

Hansen, headed for law school as soon as Utah's Final Four run is done, shook his head and smiled.

"I don't think Lute [Olson, Arizona's coach] ever heard of Tooele," Hansen quipped.

That's Tooele, Utah, the small town that produced the starting shooting guard on this year's NCAA West Regional championship team.

Maybe Olson will look it up on a map, considering that Hansen and the Utes eliminated Arizona's band of former prep superstars in last Saturday's West Regional final.

Utah's astonishing 76-51 victory in that game stands as the 1998 NCAA tournament's consummate triumph of mind over matter, brains over brawn and substance over style. The Utes--mostly unwanted and unheralded coming out of high school--weren't about to outjump or outrun Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and the other future pros of Tucson, so they simply outthought them.

Utah Coach Rick Majerus describes the cerebral brand of basketball played by the Utes as "3-D chess." Once he was able to sell the Utes on a risky triangle-and-two defensive scheme against Arizona--and, to hear Majerus tell it, it was quite a selling job--Utah took to the task as if it was a physics midterm.

When Majerus first pitched the triangle-and-two to his players in practice, Majerus said Hansen asked, " 'Why aren't we doing this?' And I told him, 'Drew, that is my No. 1 choice. But we can't do it because of this.' And he kind of sat there and said, 'Yeah.'

"But I am challenged every day. They're a very bright group."

Majerus takes the high-IQ road on the recruiting trail because it's the only one available to him. The best shooters, leapers and sprinters--i.e., real athletes--tend to think of Utah as Siberia, only with less to do on a Saturday night.

Salt Lake City, where the Utah campus is located, is "a parochial, small-town environment," according to Majerus. "There's not a lot of clubs. Your business is everybody else's business. . . . There's 12 good restaurants. I know that for a fact. I have a 12-restaurant rotation. If I go to Park City, it's 16.

"It's a nice place, but it's a small-town environment, and like a lot of small towns, it closes in on you, especially if you're young and want to have a really good time. It's not a good-time destination for the 18-to-25 set."

Majerus says he tried to recruit Arizona stars Bibby and Michael Dickerson, but they weren't interested enough to even visit the school.

"It's hard," Majerus says. "[Reserve] Britton Johnsen is the only prep All-American player on our team. Drew wasn't recruited. Doleac wasn't recruited. We kind of specialize in niche players."

The coach laughed when someone suggested that Utah's appearance in the Final Four might jump-start the recruitment program.

"We are the eighth- or ninth-winningest program of the '90s, so winning doesn't matter," he said. "We're still not getting them.

"No one in Philly or the Slam-N-Jam camp in Chicago is saying, 'Gee, I really want to be a Runnin' Ute.' No one, except in the state of Utah, is putting his head on his pillow and thinking, 'I want to be a Runnin' Ute.' "

Only two players on Utah's 12-man roster--Miller and sixth man David Jackson--are African American. Majerus claims it wasn't planned that way.

"It's tough with blacks," he says. "The Mormon religion doesn't have a good reputation in the black community. For one, there's virtually no blacks in the hierarchy of the Mormon church. Secondly, until 25 years ago, blacks couldn't ascend to the priesthood in the church, and I think that was equated with being racist.

"I think quite the contrary is true in Utah. I call it Green Bay Packer syndrome. If you're a black athlete or a black person in Green Bay, you are embraced like you wouldn't believe.

"I used to go up there [to Green Bay] with my teammates from Marquette and play in these after-season tournaments. You are so welcomed. In Utah too. They almost bend over backward to show you they're not prejudiced.

"The problem is perception. There are only 12,000 blacks in the state of Utah. There are more blacks in Compton than there are in all of Utah."

In front of reporters, Majerus tries to shrug off the predicament with a steady flow of one-liners.

"I think there are, what, five black professors on campus? You can't find a store in Salt Lake that sells Afro-Sheen."

And: "That's why we don't get brothers. There's no soul patrol in Salt Lake. There's only 12,000 blacks in the whole state. You drive to Compton, you can find 12,000 blacks at a Rummage-a-Rama."

Miller, who grew up in Compton and played his prep basketball at Verbum Dei, says his college choice was immediately second-guessed by his friends back home.

"Everyone in my neighborhood said, 'Why are you going to Utah?' " Miller says. "Nobody knew about Utah. They probably didn't even know where it was on the map."

Truth be told, neither did Miller.

"I just knew it was somewhere above Arizona," he said.

So Majerus has to conduct his own Rummage-a-Rama to piece together a competitive team.

Miller, the most valuable player of the West Regional, became available only because of the Proposal 48 scarlet letter. Prop. 48 allows scholastic nonqualifiers to enroll, but they must sit out their freshman seasons while raising their grades.

Hanno Mottola, the 6-10 sophomore forward who scored 14 points in the upset of Arizona, was found in Finland, where he was averaging 14 points a game for the 22-and-under Finnish national team. Majerus made two trips to Helsinki to close the deal, finally persuading Mottola to sign with Utah, where he has found the climate "close to home, except there's more snow here."

Doleac was just a big, skinny kid from Alaska who never played organized basketball until the 10th grade. Majerus took a flier on him after watching him at a summer camp in California, mainly because he liked his attitude . . . and his altitude. He was already pushing 6 feet 10 at 16.

Majerus offered Doleac a full scholarship before he had played his first game as a high school senior--and the hunch has paid off handsomely. Doleac, now 6-11, leads the Utes in scoring at 15.9 points a game, and rebounding with 6.9, and is regarded a probable first-round NBA draft selection.

Beyond that, Majerus is left to scour the bargain bins around the state. He plucked Hansen from Tooele and Alex Jensen, the 6-7 forward who hounded Simon into oblivion in the regional final, from Centerville.

They are not the prettiest bunch to watch, lumbering down the floor and extending those long, gangly arms halfway to the arena rafters.

But they are 4-0 in this NCAA tournament, which is more than Arizona, Duke, UCLA and Kansas can say.

"It's funny," Doleac says. "My brother works for a bar, and basketball games are always on there. He hears the people go 'Wow!' when they see a dunk and then he watches us play and he says, 'You guys don't dunk.'

"I tell him, 'No, but you don't see anybody dunking against us, either.' You watch Arizona on TV and all their highlights this year were dunks. They got one dunk against us all day.

"That's because we play defense. We have the mental toughness on defense not to allow dunks."

And that is Utah basketball in a nutshell: The winningest anti-highlight show in the country.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°