Tonight Florida and Ohio State will meet in the national championship. It'll be a game with high emotion, physical play and a lot of heart break for one team and their fans. Though reaching this level is nearly good enough, coming away without the ultimate prize can be utterly devastating. Just ask Utah fans.
Nine years and three days ago the Utes were getting ready for the most important 40 minutes of their lives. They had, three days earlier, stunned North Carolina to advance to the school's first national championship game in 54 years. Already owning a win over defending national champion Arizona, Utah found themselves, at least in some circles, the favorite heading into their their game against Kentucky. The two had met a year earlier in the Elite Eight, however the Utes once again tasted defeat at the hands of the Wildcats, who eventually went on to lose to Arizona in the national championship.
But this time around it was supposed to be different. The Utes were primed for the upset, as they had wins over two number one seeds. Kentucky? They were a two seed, definitely not the fierce foe that Utah saw in the Elite Eight and Final Four. Yet games aren't played based on what a team did in the past, or what someone thinks a team will do in the future. If that were the case, Utah would have been knocked out of the 1998 NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight, at the hands of Arizona. But unlike those Wildcats, the Kentucky Wildcats would prove to be Utah's kryptonite and the pain of that game still lingers nine years later.
I remember that run in 1998. I was in junior high, eight grade to be exact, and it was a special moment for Utah sports in general. The Jazz were poised for a return trip to the NBA Finals and the Utes were on course for an improbable run in March. It began simply enough, with wins over San Francisco, Arkansas and West Virginia -- all teams Utah was picked to defeat. And then came their game with Arizona, a team that was apparently ready for another trip to the Final Four. But the Utes had none of it, and completely dominated Arizona using a gimmick triangle-and-two defense. That defense completely shut down the Wildcats offense, holding them to only 51 points. The stunning victory gave Utah their first trip to the Final Four since 1966 and another game against a number one seed, this time the team that finished the season ranked number one and had the top overall seed in the tournament that year.
Throughout the tournament many joked that North Carolina was an NBA team playing in college uniforms and they weren't that far off. Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison anchored a Tar Heels team that only had lost three times entering the game against the Utes. It was a near impossible feat for a three seeded team from the little known WAC. For all the respect Utah gained by beating Arizona, many still felt North Carolina would dominate. And on paper, maybe they should have, but that didn't happen. Instead, using the less impressive man defense, Utah shut down the Tar Heels impressive offense and built a lead that would carry them to the national championship game. Utah had done it again, stunning the world and making their way to the national championship game.
I can't discuss the 1998 Championship game because I've only seen it once. It was that night, in 1998 and I was sitting with my family at the kitchen table. I remember the night vividly, but not much about the game. I guess I blocked it out, but I do remember parts of the game. Mostly the first half, where the Utes built a 10 point lead and looked as if they were going to do to Kentucky as they did to Arizona and North Carolina. I remember sitting at the table, next to my grandma and rocking back and forth because of how nervous I was. Even with the halftime lead, I felt uneasy and I just wished the game were over. My memory of what happened in that game only go about as far as Utah's lead. Early in the second half they jumped out to a 13 point lead and were cruising, but then the shots stopped falling. Kentucky began rebounding, scoring and playing tough defense and Utah looked completely lost. I remember, with about 5 minutes left, the team looking completely exhausted. And then it ends, I don't remember anything else from that game except every time Kentucky scored I banged my head against the wall. When the buzzer sounded and the game had ended, I cried.
It was a difficult moment, because an hour prior I was nearly euphoric, yet still grounded by my nerves. To go from leading by 10, to losing by nearly 10 was an emotionally grueling moment. I didn't know what to do, or what to say and I couldn't imagine how the players and coaches felt. We were so close to the national championship and to come away empty handed is an indescribable pain. But honestly, as much as it hurt back then, it's even worse now. And I say that because I wonder if Utah will ever be able to get back to the national championship game. In 1998 losing was tough, but the thought of reaching that level again in my mind was something very attainable. And now, I'm not so sure I believe this.
1998 was the height of Utah basketball and the era of Rick Majerus. Though I found 1999's regular season to be far more enjoyable, one where the Utes dominated the WAC by going undefeated, sweeping their way to the conference tournament championship and earning a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament, the ending was less impressive. Even with that high seed, the Utes found themselves upset in the second round and even under the great Rick Majerus, Utah would fail to advance beyond the second round again. It wasn't until 2005 that Utah made it back to the Sweet 16, but, like in '93, '96, '97, '98 and in 2003, the Utes would lose at the hands of Kentucky. That was Utah's last really good season and I hope Jim Boylen can bring us back to the level where we're competing again for deep tournament runs, because then maybe it will make it easier to accept the defeat in the 1998 national championship, then I could cherish that season even more. 1998 was an incomplete because I can't move on from that Kentucky game. I try to, but every time March rolls around I can't help but think of it. I can't help but think of how close Utah came to making history and I can't help but wonder if we'll ever get back there again.
Next season Utah will celebrate its 100th year as a college basketball program. It will also mark the 10th anniversary of their 1998 run. I don't ask for the team to dominate and repeat what was accomplished during that season, but if I could see something that gives me hope that Utah basketball is well on its way back to elite status, I can start putting 1998 behind me. Because losing only makes you embrace the past even more, especially when you see no hope. At least hope allows you to not only value the past, but get excited for the future. Since 1999, I really never felt Utah was at the level where they could make a deep NCAA run and they never did. Outside of 2005, Utah hasn't been a team that's made noise in the tournament and it has made 1998 that much harder to accept, at least for me.
I don't know if Utah will ever win a national championship again, but I would like to at least know we're positioned to do so. Anything can happen in March, you just need the perfect storm and that's what Utah saw in 1998. I know that under the right coach and the right circumstances that perfect storm can happpen again. Let's hope Jim Boylen is the guy that can ride that to a one shining moment.