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HOOP JUNKIE MAJERUS
LOVES HOLDING COURT

The practices had been over for more than an hour. At opposite ends of the floor, workers were standing on ladders underneath the baskets, attaching new nets to the rims.

The Alamodome was quiet and empty, save for a dozen or so reporters who were crowded around a courtside table, listening to a balding, 300-pound man in a white T-shirt hold court.

Rick Majerus, the Utah coach, had been there for two hours, talking to anyone who wandered by. Majerus is one of those rare coaches who actually relishes the give-and-take with writers. He has been known to call reporters in the middle of the night to talk.

"I don't have anywhere to go," he said. "Hey, this is one day, and I think I have something to say about some things."

He might still be there. This is his crowning moment, and Majerus, 50, is going to make the most of it.

In 1977, he was a young assistant to the legendary Al McGuire when Marquette upset North Carolina for the NCAA title. Twenty-one years later, he is back with his own team. And it's the Tar Heels who await his Utes in tonight's semifinal.

"I can't believe we're here," Majerus said. "I admit that to you. I tell my players we're going to win this thing. But Carolina is the best team. I know what that team is. We could play really well and still be annihilated. They're an aerial circus out there."

Majerus, who has never lost an NCAA game as the higher seed, played the underdog's role to the hilt. Earlier in the day, while watching North Carolina practice, he stopped in the middle of a sentence and said, "I'm glad my players aren't around to see this."

He was having fun, which is a refreshing change in a sport filled with
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Sullivan: Majerus a top defensive coach
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grim-faced coaches who have reduced saying nothing to a science. Majerus hasn't uttered a boring syllable in years. He'll make fun of his girth, his prodigious eating habits, his slovenly dress.

"They gave me a couple of free hats and a T-shirt," he said. "To me, that's a wardrobe."

He said people should admire Joe Dumars, not Dennis Rodman. He lamented the fact that the best player he ever coached, Keith Van Horn, graduated a year before Utah made the Final Four. He cried when he said he wished his late father could be here with him.

Majerus spoke passionately about the notion of the student-athlete. He said his players miss practice all the time because they need extra time for their studies.

"A lot of schools talk about academics," Majerus said. "They hire you as a teacher and fire you as a coach. They don't walk the talk, and that's hard. They say they want it, but they'll compromise.

"I make way too much money (counting outside income, he earns about $500,000 a year)," he said. "But if I lose they'll fire me, and I understand that. It's a fine line where all of this fits in. There's a lot of money around this tournament."

He was troubled by news of the point-shaving scandal at Northwestern, which added another blemish to college basketball's image as its marquee event was about to unfold.

"That is so sad," he said. "I couldn't imagine not wanting to win, and to take money that way. But it's part of society right now. You see gambling expanding everywhere."

The NCAA wants to crack down, but Majerus had to laugh. The Western Athletic Conference held its league tournament this year in Las Vegas. It housed the teams in casinos. While he was there, the NCAA mailed him an anti-gambling video -- yes, to the casino.

It hurts to know that the game he loves is being compromised, that a player might see everyone else getting rich and decide to get his share by throwing in with gamblers.

But he consoles himself with the knowledge that it's still the same game he learned under McGuire in the 70's.

"This is a dream come true," he said. "I'm just a basketball junkie, and our kids are too. I'm really looking forward to North Carolina."

The Tar Heels have to be a little concerned. Majerus has a record of 209-58 in his nine seasons at Utah. He is one of the top defensive minds in the game, and one of the most sought-after coaches in the nation.

Majerus is said to be the top choice for the Arizona State job. His name comes up for just about every big opening these days. But it would be hard for him to find a position where he'd have the autonomy he enjoys at Utah.

Any lingering doubts about his ability were put to rest a week ago in the West Region final, when he installed a triangle-and-two defense that baffled defending champion Arizona.

"I've gotten so many calls about the triangle-and-two, I'm thinking of getting it a Web site," he said. "It's some junk thing we threw in, and the kids worked their butts off."

Majerus said he got no personal satisfaction from that game plan. But he's too modest. The win against Arizona is being called one of the best coaching jobs in the history of the tournament.

Listening to him rave about Carolina, you wonder if Utah will bother to show up. But deep down, he knows he has a chance.

Majerus isn't content simply to get this far. He'll have the Utes ready. And who can tell? If things fall his way, he could be the one on the ladder late Monday night, taking down the net.

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