Rick Majerus had turned the Utah basketball program into a consistent contender under his watch. The Utes had won three straight WAC titles and reached the regional round of the NCAA Tournament each of the previous two seasons.
In 1996, Utah’s season ended in the Sweet 16, when Rick Pitino’s Kentucky squad, easily the best in the nation, leveled them 101-70. One year later the Utes were even stronger, a #2 seed and they made the regional final. Again Pitino’s ‘Cats were in the way. The game wasn’t a wipeout this time, but it still ended in defeat, 72-59. Utah lost its star forward, Keith Van Horne, to the NBA draft where he was the second overall pick and it looked like Majerus might have to do some re-tooling.
Majerus had every reason to think he could put together a winning team in the post-Van Horn era. The 1998 Utah basketball edition had a nice guard-forward combo of his own with Andre Miller and Michael Doleac, each of whom would enjoy long careers at the next level (Miller’s still playing with the Washington Wizards at this writing).
And the Utes would find a supporting cast—sophomore forwards Hanno Mottola and Alex Jensen stepped up with rebounding help, and senior guard Drew Hansen could bang home the trey and play defense. It was enough to get Utah flying out of the gate to a 19-0 start. The schedule wasn’t great—they had the good fortune of playing Wake Forest one year after Tim Duncan left for the NBA and Providence one year after the Friars made a run to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Utah would get a further schedule break in conference play. The WAC was a 16-team league at this time and split into two separate divisions of eight. TCU was on the opposite side of the conference and went 14-0. Utah did not have to play the Horned Frogs. Although one can just as credibly argue that was to TCU’s advantage more than Utah’s, given the Horned Frogs untimely first-round loss in the NCAAs.
The teams the Utes did have to deal with were New Mexico, the league’s third NCAA team, along with NIT clubs Wyoming and Colorado State, and a probation-saddled UNLV, who was at least NIT-worthy and might have made it four in the Dance, had they been eligible. Utah took their first loss of the season at New Mexico on February 1, before answering back on the Lobos return visit four weeks later.
Utah fell at Wyoming and UNLV, but won the return trips, and the Utes swept Colorado State. They entered the NCAA field as a #3 seed in the West Regional—where mercifully, there was no Kentucky to be found.
Majerus’ team took advantage of their favorable bracket position to take out South Florida and Arkansas and punch their ticket to Anaheim, were the West Regionals would be held. The Utes would not have to face the draw’s #2 seed, the Cincinnati Bearcats. 10th-seeded West Virginia, having first beaten Temple, then knocked off Cincy on a miracle banked-in three-point shot by Jarrod West at the buzzer, was the opponent.
West Virginia was ready for Utah, and Miller and Doleac would respond like leaders. Doleac scored 25 points and grabbed 9 rebounds. Miller scored 14 and dished 8 assists. The biggest edge Utah enjoyed in the Sweet 16 game was at the foul line, where they outscored WVA 22-10. 18 of those points came from Doleac and Miller. Utah got a 65-62 win and for the second year in a row was a win from the Final Four.
A #1 seed again stood in their way and this time it was Arizona, the defending national champions. A year ago, Arizona completed a miracle run of their own in the NCAAs, winning the crown as a #4 seed and becoming the first (and still only) team to beat three #1 seeds en route, including an overtime win over Kentucky in the championship game. Perhaps they liked the underdog role more than that of favorite. Maybe it was just a bad day. Or maybe it was Utah’s time, as the past buildup to this game could credibly argue.
The Utes led by nine at the half and pulled away to a shockingly easy 76-51 win. If Doleac was solid, at 16 points/11 rebounds, Miller was stunning, scoring 18, getting 14 rebounds and handing out 13 assists. Utah had dismantled a team that included future NBA mainstays, Jason Terry and Mike Bibby, along with Miles Simon, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Final Four. Majerus and his crew were on their way to San Antonio for the Final Four.
SAN ANTONIO SHOWDOWN
You would have had to be a hard-core Utah fan to be noting the possibility of another game with Kentucky. The Wildcats had rallied from 17 down to beat Duke and reach the Final Four, but they were in the opposite semi-final against Stanford. Utah drew North Carolina, the #1 seed in the East, and loaded with Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison, two more players who are still in the NBA at this writing. The general public perception was that Utah and Stanford would serve their role as sparring partners, and then let the country get its heavyweight fight of Kentucky-Carolina on Monday night. It didn’t work out that way.
Utah was as prepared for North Carolina as they had been for Arizona. The Utes led 35-22 at half, and the 65-59 final obscures how completely Utah owned this game from start to finish. Miller was seemingly determined to make sure every basketball fan in America remembered him, scoring 16, getting 14 more rebounds (did I mention this kid is only 6’2”? Yes, I’m sure I did) and dishing seven assists. Doleac had 16 points. To fans outside the state of Utah, John Stockton and Karl Malone for the NBA title-contending Jazz were the guard-forward combo worth talking about. To those inside the state, Miller and Doleac weren’t bad themselves.
Stanford nearly pulled a double-whammy on CBS, but undoubtedly the network was relieved that Kentucky survived a double-overtime thriller. The NCAA Tournament Committee is often accused of hotwiring matchups, but no one could accuse them of this one—it just seemed Kentucky and Utah were bound and determined to meet up in March, and now they would do so for the national title.
Utah was making believers out of the country, and a 41-31 halftime lead—to become a 12-point cushion in the second half, had those of us watching thinking they might actually pull this off. This wasn’t the most talented of Kentucky’s great teams—Jeff Sheppard or Scott Padgett was the team’s best player—and Pitino had been replaced by Tubby Smith, but the Big Blue still found a way to get it done.
Kentucky solved Utah’s defense and hit 51 percent from the floor, enough to overcome a big rebounding advantage for the Utes, as Doleac and Mottola owned the glass. But Utah had nothing offensively down the stretch and Kentucky won 78-69. A great year came up just short against a familiar foe.
Miller came back for his senior year under Majerus, won WAC Player of the Year, and the team was a #2 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. They were upset in the second round. Perhaps it’s just as well. The 3-seed in their bracket and awaiting in the Sweet 16 was Kentucky.