Sunday, March 23, 2003

Majerus has the big blues

Utah coach looking for first win over UK

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Indiana coach Mike Davis allowed after his on-court meltdown in December that Kentucky basketball had gotten under his skin. He ought to walk a mile in Rick Majerus' shoes.

It's March, but Majerus is stuck in Groundhog Day, with the Wildcats always in his way. Today, he faces UK for the fifth time in his team's last nine NCAA Tournament appearances, still searching for his first victory.

He's good-natured about the pairings. But the man who has won a national coach of the year award in four different seasons calls himself a "doormat" and an "also-ran," in part because UK has kept his coaching accomplishments incomplete.

"It's sort of like your career dream, your vocation," he said of his failed title bids, including a loss to UK in the 1998 NCAA final. "It's like your Pulitzer - you're that close to getting it. And all of a sudden, the last paragraph beats you out."

Top-ranked UK (30-3), riding a 24-game winning streak, will meet a Utah team that's a decided long shot. The Utes (25-7), ninth seeds in the Midwest Regional, will be without top player Britton Johnsen when they meet the Wildcats at approximately 7:10 p.m. in Gaylord Entertainment Center.

At Utah, Majerus is 15-4 in the NCAAs against teams other than UK but 0-4 against the Wildcats. He's 0-5 overall against UK, dating back to their first meeting here in Nashville a decade ago this week.

"I'd prefer not to play Kentucky. I mean, obviously," Majerus said. ". . . I wish Kentucky wouldn't be as good. But hey, Kentucky is Kentucky."

UK ended Utah's season in 1993, '96, '97 and '98. The teams also would have played in the '99 regional semifinals, but the Utes were upset by Miami University in the previous round. Then UK beat Utah in the 1999 Preseason NIT.

"It seems we always wind up in the same bracket," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "It's just the luck of the draw . . . (But) there's no way we're going to go in overconfident."

UK assistant coach Allen Edwards, who played on the Wildcats' 1998 title team, said Smith would tell his players to be prepared for the emotion of a team extra motivated to avenge previous defeats to UK.

UK junior guard Cliff Hawkins said he and his teammates are anything but overconfident, preparing for a team that usually wills its slower tempo on its opponents.

"We haven't seen anything like we'll see tomorrow," Hawkins said. "Yeah, we're concerned. It's one-and-done now. Everyone's anxious."

The Utes are young, with four freshmen among their top seven scorers in uniform today. They went just 3-3 in March before the tournament.

Yet they are sound defensively, ranking 17th nationally in scoring defense (59.9 ppg) and allowing just 41.1 percent shooting by opponents. They slow the tempo and make an average of 7.3 3-pointers a game, shooting 38.3 percent behind the arc.

"In any game, the team that can control the tempo usually has the best chance of winning," Smith said.

UK has been so-so lately when facing zone defenses. Utah normally plays man-to-man, but Majerus has been known to spring a zone on special occasions. Case in point: the triangle-and-two he used to befuddle top-seeded Arizona in an upset in the 1998 NCAAs.

That tourney ended, of course, with UK's comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Utah in the final. Majerus said that loss cast him into a depression that in some ways hasn't entirely ended.

"It's something you always live with, sort of like being an also-ran," he said.

Majerus even allowed that he picked UK to win the tournament in his office pool, though that doesn't mean he's surrendering.

"I expect to win," he said. "Which coach doesn't? You draw up a plan you think will work.

"Yeah, we kick a lot of (butt) on the blackboard. It's when we get to the court that we end up in trouble."

Majerus' misery

Utah's Rick Majerus is 0-5 against UK. A recap:

UK 83, Utah 62 (NCAA second round); 1993: Eighth-seeded Utah was little match for the top-seeded Wildcats.

UK 101, Utah 70 (NCAA regional semifinal); 1996: The "Untouchables" torched the Utes; UK won the title that year and had an average victory margin of more than 25 points.

UK 72, Utah 59 (NCAA regional final); 1997: Ron Mercer's 21 points led UK into the Final Four.

UK 78, Utah 69 (NCAA final); 1998: The Wildcats had the biggest comeback in championship game history, down 12 points in the second half.

UK 56, Utah 48 (Preseason NIT second round); 2000: The Utes' final seven possessions resulted in three turnovers, four missed shots and just one basket.



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