New York • Not only will Jimmy Soto have a prime view of how the Utes’ NIT Final Four run unfolds this season, but he was in the middle of the action on the court the last time they advanced to New York in 1992.
Soto is the longtime radio analyst for the Utah men’s basketball game broadcasts on ESPN 700 radio, alongside play-by-play man Bill Riley. He made the trip to Madison Square Garden to call Tuesday’s semifinal game against Western Kentucky.
In 1992, Soto was the point guard on the NIT third-place team coached by Rick Majerus. Soto, who also serves as Utah’s assistant athletic director for major gifts, averaged 11.6 points per game and 3.0 assists per game that season. The Utes’ 1992 NIT appearance came sandwiched between a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.
“The year before we’d gone to the Sweet 16 in Seattle, so it was tough to get motivated,” Soto said. “Once we started playing some games and winning a little bit, we got excited to make the trip to New York.”
Soto’s Utes team started off that NIT with a 72-57 win against Majerus’ former school, Ball State, before they edged Arizona State on the road and then beat Rhode Island at home in the quarterfinals. In New York, they dropped a close semifinal game against Notre Dame team led by star forward LaPhonso Ellis, who went on to become the fifth overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft.
In the consolation game, the Utes beat a Florida team which included a high-scoring guard/forward named Stacey Poole and a 6-foot-10 freshman big man named Andre DeClercq. DeClercq played 10 NBA seasons, five with the Orlando Magic.
Several of the Utes players from that team, including Bryon Wilson, Phil Dixon, Josh Grant and Soto, returned the following season for a team won the WAC regular-season title and returned to the NCAA Tournament. The NIT appearance may have done more in terms of motivation to return to the NCAA than anything else, according to Soto.
“Having that group be in the NCAA Tournament as sophomores and then [the] NIT as juniors, it was a great experience being able to go to Madison Square Garden and playing Notre Dame and play against Florida,” Soto said. “It just wasn’t the same as playing in the NCAAs, and we knew that feeling and had some success in the NCAA Tournament. With all our guys coming back, we thought we could have a good chance to get back to the NCAAs again, which we did.”
The Utes visited the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday, the site honoring the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
“The 9/11 Memorial was really cool,” Utes senior forward Tyler Rawson said. “It’s a day I still remember. Being able to go see all those artifacts and hear a few of those stories from some the victims was real touching. It’s always been on my bucket list. I’m happy I was able to cross that off.”
Howland’s Utah connection
Tuesday’s second semifinal game includes Penn State and a Mississippi State team coached by Weber State graduate Ben Howland.
Now in his third season with Mississippi State, Howland earned his bachelor’s degree from Weber State in 1979. His wife, Kim, is a former Weber State cheerleader.
Howland’s previous coaching stints included 10 seasons at UCLA as well as stops at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh.