SALT LAKE CITY - Driving from the airport into downtown Salt Lake City Friday afternoon, I saw a billboard advertising free tickets for the Arizona-Utah basketball game.
Could this be the same hoops-mad city in which I used to live? Free tickets to see the Utes?
But indeed, the school is offering free tickets to all military personnel and to first responders and their families today.
This is a far different place from the hotbed of college basketball I remember from the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
If the Utes didn't draw a full house, 15,000, to the Huntsman Center, or close, it merited a sidebar.
Much of it is that the Utes haven't been able to sustain its long tradition in the handoff from Jack Gardner to Jerry Pimm to Rick Majerus and those thereafter. Losing empties out even the most holy basketball shrines.
The other part is that the LDS culture doesn't embrace basketball on the Sabbath.
The Utes played host to their first Sunday game in history on Jan. 27, drawing an announced crowd of 7,769 in a lopsided loss to Stanford. It was more likely that 4,500 were in the seats.
Wrote the Deseret News' Brad Rock, the state's enduring sports columnist: "They've made their deal with the devil, so to speak. … it's a strange new era.''
I'm of the belief that the Huntsman Center will soon grow into one of the Pac-12's most feared home court advantages; second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak is impressive. His upside, and that of the Utes, is a positive one.
But playing on Sunday, today, before Coach K can gather more reinforcements, should work to Arizona's advantage.
Wrote Rock: Sabbath-obeying Utah fans will just have to live with it. It's not ideal, but it's the deal their school agreed upon. Otherwise, the Utes should have stayed in the Mountain West, where they had enough clout to tell the conference to take its Sunday scheduling and go, well, straight to heck.''
UA needs Johnson's scoring if season to end on an uptick
UA sophomore shooting guard Nick Johnson hasn't scored in double figures since Jan. 31 at Washington. That capped an impressive run, six games, in which he averaged 16.2 points and seemed to be a cinch for the All-Pac-12 team. His troubles continued at Colorado on Thursday. Do you realize his five-game career against the Buffaloes includes 9-for-38 shooting, or 23 percent? "Nick's not super human," said teammate Solomon Hill after the Colorado game. "He's going to make mistakes." Johnson's scoring production, is a must if Arizona is to finish the season productively. … Sean Elliott turned 45 two weeks ago but it didn't stop him from suiting up and playing in Friday's NBA Celebrity All-Star Game in Houston. On a team with Usain Bolt and "Hunger Games'' star Josh Hutcherson, Elliott somehow failed to score. He bricked three attempts from three-point distance, and drew the mock wrath of TV analysts when he blocked a shot of ex-UConn star Maya Moore. But the good thing is that Elliott looked fit, not like an old guy. His recovery from a long-ago kidney transplant remains an inspiration. …In her first homecoming game, Marana High grad Jamee Swan helped Colorado's women's basketball team beat Arizona on Friday night at McKale Center. Swan scored five points and had six rebounds in 12 minutes. She is averaging 4.8 points for the Buffs and is generally their third sub off the bench. Swan chose CU over Arizona and that looks like a good decision, given the UA's eight-game losing streak. Her brother, Ryan Swan, a 6-foot 4-inch sophomore, started for the Marana High's basketball team this season.
More Short Stuff
Former Sahuaro hoops star shooting, thriving at Fla. JC
Sahuaro High grad Cashala Thompson is third in the NJCAA in three-point field goal shooting, averaging 3.3 made treys per game at Hillsborough (Fla.) Community College. The daughter of former UA and Cholla High School standout Harvey Thompson made nine three-pointers in a recent game against College of Central Florida. She is averaging 12.9 points per game. … When I read that the UA's ongoing weekend baseball opponent, Coppin State, finished 1-53 last year, I suspected it was a typo. But it's true. Last year, CSU went 0-38 to start the season, beat George Mason 5-4, then lost its last 15, including 27-0 and 23-0 to Delaware State. So Friday's 16-0 loss to Arizona was not much of a surprise. … I was initially skeptical that the world's No. 4 ranked golfer, Brandt Snedeker, believing he withdrew from this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships to get a rest, not because of a rib injury. (He told The Golf Channel that x-rays revealed no damage). But then I read this paragraph from the 1963 Tucson Open at Forty-Niners Country Club, which was the only time Jack Nicklaus played in Tucson: "Dave Ragan pulled out with a bad back; Bill Morgan reported that he was sick; Bob Crow played nine holes and dropped out with a bad knee; Bill Hamilton hurt his hand; Bob Rosburg withdrew with a hand injury after his club struck a rock.'' Enjoy your time off, Mr. Snedeker. … Rincon/University grad Michael Thompson has not only been invited to play the Masters this year, he is also to be the featured speaker at the Augusta Golf Breakfast, a Masters Week tradition hosted by the Greater Augusta Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Thompson, who has made the cut in just one PGA Tour event this year, will speak two days before the Masters begins.
Softball making impact on local economy
I was at the Tucson airport on Thursday, watching as women's softball teams from the University of New Haven (Conn.) and Minnesota State-Mankato arrived for the 18-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic that concludes a three-day run at Lincoln Park today. Can you imagine the economic impact of the February and March college softball played here? Tucson promoter Jim Tiggas launched his 12th year as host of the Tucson Invitational Games last week. After the Leadoff Classic, Tiggas will oversee 52 more women's softball teams at Lincoln Park in various competitions from March 1-17, simultaneous to 55 NCAA Division II and III and NAIA baseball teams playing at the Kino Sports Complex from March 1-30. … After winning his sixth state championship in boys soccer last week, Salpointe Catholic coach Wolfgang Weber said there is one title he cannot claim. After 32 seasons at Salpointe, he is believed to be the second-longest currently tenured prep coach, at the same school, in Tucson. The leader? Salpointe boys golf coach Jim Flannery, who coached the Lancers to the state title in 1981, a year before Weber was hired. "We joke about it all the time," said Weber. "Jim insists he's going to outlast me." … Tucson resident Chris Nallen, who is probably the UA's most accomplished golfer since the '90s, had back surgery last week in an attempt to restore his career. He has been on the Web.com Tour for nine years, coming oh-so-close to the PGA Tour on four occasions. Now, at 30, the two-time consensus All-American will virtually start over. … Salpointe Catholic and UA grad Jerry Carrillo has a chance to coach his 400th career basketball victory at Cochise College this week. It could come Friday night in Douglas against Pima College. Carrillo took 397 victories into Saturday's game against Glendale College; the Apaches play at No. 14 Central Arizona on Tuesday and then return home to play Pima. He is averaging more than 22 victories per year as Cochise's coach.
New NCAA football recruiting rule is baffling
When Rich Rodriguez begins recruiting under new NCAA rules this summer - unlimited texting and phone calls will be allowed to all high school seniors - he will be part of a coaching profession worried about the potential fallout. "There's a sense that chaos may come into play," he said. No kidding. Beyond that, the quality of life for college coaches will be seriously affected. This might be one of the most nutty pieces of legislation in the NCAA's history of nutty legislation. … When Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez revealed last week that the Big Ten will cease to schedule non-conference games against FCS teams, probably by 2016, it was a worthy step toward giving fans more for their money in those sloppy September games. The Pac-12's worst offender is Washington, which has future games against FCS schools Idaho State, Eastern Washington, Georgia State, Sacramento State and Montana. In the Pac-12, only UCLA, USC and Stanford don't have FCS opponents on future schedules. Arizona's Greg Byrne recently added Grambling State to the UA's 2016 home schedule, which seemed to be a popular move. Colorado and Cal also added Grambling State. Byrne has also signed a home-and-home agreement for Arizona to play UTEP, in 2017 and 2018. … Fifty years ago this week, the Cleveland Indians reported for spring training at Hi Corbett Field. It was an important time for the future of Tucson inasmuch as the Indians' roster included infielder Jerry Kindall and first baseman Tito Francona. The two players became good friends and 17 years later Terry Francona led Kindall's 1980 Arizona team to the NCAA championship. … On the same day the Star reported the arrival of the Indians, it published an image of Mickey Mantle's attention-getting $100,000 contract. The photograph plainly showed Mantle's Social Security number and his home address in Fort Worth, Texas. How times have changed.
My Two Cents
Luck, sun have always shone on Tucson during Match Play
In six years of WGC-Accenture Match Play Golf Championships on Dove Mountain, 30 days of competition, only one day was truly marred by bad weather.
That was the Saturday late-morning and afternoon rounds of 2011, when Ian Poulter emerged from rain, hail and temperatures in the 40s to win the title. It snowed before the 2012 finals, when Luke Donald won, but by noon it was mostly pleasant on the course.
So you can't say we've been picked on if, as the forecast suggests, Wednesday's opening round is played with showers and temperatures in the 40s.
If you want to put a number to it, we're 29-for-30, sun vs. storms. That's 96 percent sunshine.
I'll take that average for the next six years, too.