They might not be the best, but they certainly are the brightest. Few expected the University of Utah to advance this far in the NCAA Tournament, not to the Final Four, certainly not the first year after losing the best player in the school’s history.
It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure out what happened, but the Utes almost had one anyway. Drew Hansen, their senior guard and co-captain, was interviewed for a Rhodes scholarship earlier this school year. He didn’t get it.
It was probably that A-minus he got in judicial process, an upper division class he took as a sophomore and which remains the only blemish on a report card that otherwise has straight A’s.
Without Keith Van Horn - now with the New Jersey Nets after being drafted second overall last year - Utah had to fall back on its best attribute, a work ethic that permeates every member of this team but begins at the top, with Hansen and another person who embodies the student-athlete, senior center Michael Doleac.
“We know we’re not the most talented team in the tournament,” Doleac said after Saturday’s upset victory over Arizona, which sent Utah to this weekend’s Final Four in San Antonio, where the Utes will face North Carolina on Saturday. “But we are the hardest-working.”
And, because of their intelligence, the most realistic. For Utah to succeed, it cannot be any other way. Without a flashy all-American on whom to rely, the Utes combine a balanced offense and in-your-face defense to create a team that can wear you down and make you look plain foolish by, for example, holding you to 28 percent shooting. Just ask Arizona.
Or Van Horn. In his NCAA Tournament pool, he only had the Utes getting to the round of eight. “Not the Final Four,” he said.
Doleac (pronounced DOLE-ee-ack), a biology major who will become a doctor if he does not cut it in the National Basketball Association, is the heart and soul of the Utes. Doleac is only 20, making him younger than half the players on the team, and leads quietly and by example. When an opponent is making a run, Doleac will often bring his 6-foot-11-inch, 265-pound body out to the high post, call for the ball and urge his teammates to relax. Doleac leads the team with averages of 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.
The eclectic starting five also includes two sophomore forwards - Hanno Mottola, a native of Helsinki, Finland, who majors in international business, and Alex Jensen, who did not play in two prior seasons because, as a Mormon, he was fulfilling a mission in England - and junior guard Andre Miller, whose struggles to become eligible academically helped him forge a close friendship with Doleac.
“He had a tough time his first year here,” Doleac said. “It was a new environment, having come to Utah from Los Angeles. He wasn’t allowed to watch practice. We just hung out a lot. He studied more than I have in my life. With that work ethic, I knew he’d be fine.”
The other prominent players include defensive specialist David Jackson, who often guards an opposing team’s best shooter, and freshman Britton Johnsen, whose lanky frame and animated facial expressions make him look like Van Horn’s younger brother.
The Utes are molded by their corpulent coach, Rick Majerus, whose penchant for one-liners and large portions - he has had a septuple heart bypass operation - sometimes eclipses his basketball know-how.
Majerus, 50, is in the Final Four for the first time as a head coach. He’ll be easy to spot: At every game, he wears a cream-colored sweater with a red Nike swoosh and black pants. This weekend, he’ll also have in tow one of his Hollywood cronies, the actor Kevin Costner.
But that is Majerus’ only nod to flash. He’s a basketball junkie who demands fundamentals first. You never see his players showboat, trash talk or do 360-degree dunks with a degree of difficulty of 2.2. And that’s why Majerus recruited Doleac, who was only a reserve on an Amateur Athletic Union team when Majerus first saw him play.
“I loved his spirit on the bench,” Majerus said. “I watch warm-ups, huddles. I’m kind of a purist. You could see he was so happy for the team. He had a nice touch, a big body. He liked to play. There was joy in his game. You could tell his teammates liked him.”
The same drive that Doleac has in the classroom - he skipped sixth grade - enabled him to mold that body, which through weight training now has just 6 percent fat, and become a prospective NBA first-round pick.
“When I first started playing, I was so bad, all I could do was improve,” Doleac said. “But I could see myself getting better. Being so bad was probably one of my greatest attributes.”
Doleac, who likes to hunt, fish and ski, added: “The basis of everything I do is that I want to challenge myself. Basketball was not something I was very good at. I could see how much fun it was for other people who were better than me. It was a challenge for me to try to get to that level.”
Majerus likes to keep his players at arm’s length while they are at Utah - they are friends for life beginning on graduation day - but it is hard for him to mask his admiration for Doleac and Hansen. They are the ones who took over as co-captains when Van Horn left, and they have led Utah to a 29-3 record.
“Like all good leaders, they look to themselves first,” Majerus said. “Drew is a genius, and Mike’s very smart, but they’re never patronizing to the other players when it’s anything of an academic realm. They’re terrific captains, and I’m sure they’ll use this as a springboard to leadership positions in charitable or social endeavors.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FINAL FOUR Kentucky (33-4) vs. Stanford (30-4), 2:42 p.m. North Carolina (34-3) vs. Utah (29-3), 30 minutes later Both games Saturday on CBS