Men’s Hoops Begins Season at Home

Big man Rick Majerus is back on the Utah sideline, the Utes have won their last 12 openers, and they completed their exhibition slate a perfect 2-0. But are the Utes ready for the regular season opener Friday against 1-3 St. Francis (Ill.)?

Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter.

Even with turnover and defensive problems in the preseason, the Utah men’s basketball team’s walk-ons could play big minutes and the U would still whip the NAIA’s fighting Saints by 20.

The only St. Francis victory came in a 92-63 waxing of East-West College. This is the same Saints team that plays perennial powers Rio Grande, Siena Heights, Mount St. Clare, Olivet Nazarene and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

But expect the Saints to be up for Utah, as they don’t play another Division-1 team this year.

Last year, the Saints went 14-19, with a 4-8 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) record. Juniors Nick Cardone and Mike Shannon are top returners. Cardone, an All CCAC Honorable Mention selection a year ago, averaged 10.9 points and shot .643 from the field. Shannon posted 10.3 ppg and 5.7 rpg.

With Cardone’s absence, due to an ankle injury, senior Jason Norberg has taken over. Norberg is averaging 11.5 points a game on 11-of-16 (68.8 percent) shooting from 3-point land.

Still, a distinct Utah size advantage should be the difference. The tallest Saint is 6-foot-8, and only three players are 6-foot-6 or taller. Utah’s center line runs 7-foot and 6-foot-10.

The probable Ute starters will be the same as they have been.

Senior Travis Spivey will direct the offense from the point. He’s joined in the backcourt by shooter Nick Jacobson, who averaged 11.5 points per game in the preseason.

At forwards are juniors Trace Caton and Britton Johnsen. Caton, whose 6-foot 5 figure more resembles a guard, is “the toughest guy on the team,” Majerus said. Caton led Utah in rebounding, assists and minutes during exhibition play.

For Johnsen, a preseason All MWC selection, game two was sweet redemption after a paltry opener. After a foul plagued game with EA Sports (Johnsen fouled out in just 14 minutes of action), he bounced back with a team-high 19 points, 9 rebounds and 33 minutes.

“When I’m in foul trouble, I play more cautious, [and] it turns into a nightmare,” he said.

“I need to play smarter and move my feet,” said Johnsen, who was criticized by Majerus after the opener for being mentally weak. “[Majerus] expects a lot out of you.”

Starting in the middle will be senior center Chris Burgess. At 12.5 points per, the 6-foot 10 center led the Utes in scoring in the preseason.

The contest opens a three game homestand. Utah will play Boise State and Utah State before going on the road to face Southeast Conference member Alabama Nov. 26.

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