OGDEN — A couple of weeks ago, when the University of Utah men's basketball team was stumbling and struggling through a dreadful eight-game losing streak, tonight's game against a solid Weber State squad looked like a lost cause.
But now, with the Utes having won back-to-back games and seemingly starting to figure things out, the Wildcats figure they'll have their hands full.
That's certainly the way WSU head coach Randy Rahe sizes up the situation facing his team tonight when the Utes invade the Dee Events Center — very possibly for the last time, with Utah's move to the Pac-12 Conference making future trips to Ogden doubtful.
"I'll tell you one thing right now, they're a different team these last three games than they were before that," he said. "They're starting to understand how they're going to play; they're playing with a lot of aggression; they're playing tough, and they're playing physical.
"I watched the BYU game, and they absolutely physically beat the heck out of BYU. They're playing aggressive and guarding really, really well, and you can just start to see 'em come."
Rahe has reason to be concerned.
After playing instate rival BYU tough in what turned out to be a 19-point loss, the Utes claimed a 71-59 victory over Idaho State. Then on Monday night, while Weber State was busy pounding NAIA opponent Mayville State by 49 points, Utah slipped past the University of Portland by a 72-67 margin.
Senior point guard Josh "Jiggy" Watkins leads the Utes in scoring with 16.7 points per game, which ranks second-best in the Pac-12, and he poured in a season-high 26 points in Monday's win over the Pilots from Portland. Junior forward-center Jason Washburn adds 11.5 ppg had a team-best 7.0 rebounds per game, which is sixth-best in the Pac-12.
"They're starting to find their stride, which you knew they were going to do," Rahe said of the Utes. "They've got some really good players. I mean, Jiggy can play, he's as good a point guard as there is out there. The Washburn kid is a big ol' kid inside with mobility and touch and hands, and the Martin kid can shoot the absolute tar out of the ball.
"It just took them awhile to find their way, and now that they've found it, they're going to be playing very, very confident, so we know we've got our hands full. There ain't no doubt about that. We're going to have to prepare really hard ... and get in the right mindset to get ready to go fight 'em, because it's going to be a tough, tough game. We're very aware of that."
The Wildcats will counter with a lineup which, though missing two front-line starters due to injuries, is spearheaded by junior guard Damian Lillard, who scored 28 points in just 24 minutes in Monday's blowout win.
Lillard and Co. will pose plenty of matchup problems for the Utes, first-year Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
"They're fifth in the country in points scored and they've got a lot of firepower," he said. "It starts with Lillard out front, but they've got a lot of great players inside besides Damian as well. It's a definite high-paced game, and we're going to have to focus on getting our rumps back in defensive transition. It really does start with Lillard and slowing him down."
When asked who would guard Lillard, Krystkowiak wouldn't commit, but he did say, "about five guys are going to try."
Krystkowiak played at the Dee Events Center four times (1984-87) for Montana and coached there twice as the Grizzlies' head coach (2005-06), but never won there.
"Those were awesome days, great matchups," he recalled of his playing career. "Neil McCarthy was the coach back then.
"Joe Cravens got me when I was coaching against him. I don't think I won a game as a player or a coach at the Purple Palace that I can remember. It's a familiar place for me.
"It's a great basketball town," Krystkowiak said, "and Randy's done a really nice job with the program there and put a lot of pieces to a puzzle together."
Lillard, who leads the nation in scoring with an average of 25.7 points per game, likes the way he and his teammates performed in Monday's lopsided win, but he knows it would be a mistake for the Wildcats to look past the Utes in WSU's last game before Big Sky Conference play begins.
"Everybody's confidence is up and we're in rhythm and everything is flowing right now," he said, "and it's good that we can take that into the game against Utah.
"People are saying they aren't that good and everything like that, but I've seen them the last two games and they've been playing great. So we can only go off how they've been playing lately, and they can come in here and beat us as far as I see it. We've got to be prepared as if it was any other team because they can come in and beat us, anybody can win on any given night, and we've got to come out and try to win the game."
Lillard also said that the Wildcats, who beat Utah State and Southern Utah but lost badly to BYU earlier this season, are eager to knock off their higher-profile instate rivals.
"We're kind of like a smaller school with BYU, Utah State and Utah, so I think there's a bigger chip on our shoulder than anybody," he said. "We're the smallest school and even though (the Utes) might be having a down year, they probably still feel like hey, it's just Weber State.
"We feel like we want to go beat every team in the state because we're like a little brother — that's how they see it or a lot of people see it — so we just always feel like we've got something to prove."
Contributing: Mike Sorensen
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Utah (3-8) at Weber State (7-3)
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