SALT LAKE CITY — Off to a 1-0 start in Mountain West Conference play, the Utah basketball team faces perhaps its toughest week of the season with back-to-back games at New Mexico and UNLV.
Not only are these perhaps the two toughest places to play in the league, but both teams are having good seasons with the Lobos standing at 14-3, despite two straight losses, and the Rebels at 13-3.
The Utes don't seem bothered by the fact that they have two of their biggest games on the road the same week.
"This is a big week for us," said coach Jim Boylen. "I call it The Gauntlet, having to play these teams (the same week). It's very difficult, but that's the way it is. There are nine guys on this team who haven't experienced the road in our league, so to me this is a great experience."
When asked about what makes The Pit in Albuquerque so tough, Boylen ticked off several reasons.
"The place is full. They've got fans that get off their feet and get into the game. They're angry toward the visiting team, which is good. It's an educated fan down there, fans that are passionate. I think it's as good a place to play in the country. It's 15 guys against 15,000. I love it."
"It's a lot of fun," added Luka Drca. "Those gyms are big and just amazing. Those gyms are super-loud, and the fans are into the game. We've got to stay together and listen."
INJURY UPDATE: Kim Tillie, who had knee surgery last Tuesday, has been walking without crutches for a couple of days. He told a reporter Saturday that he hoped to be playing by the following Saturday. However, Boylen said he's sticking to the original timetable of three weeks for Tillie.
"I don't expect him back any time soon," he said. "He will not be rushed back. He has a career after he plays here."
Boylen also revealed he has quotas for minutes for formerly injured players.
He said Jay Watkins, who has missed six games with a groin injury, shouldn't play more than 24 minutes per game, and Jason Washburn, who sat out most of the preseason with a knee injury, shouldn't play more than 18 or 19 minutes.
The coach also thinks Carlon Brown has turned the corner with his foot injury and could play more minutes. He averages 29.5 minutes per game, second-most on the team.
WATKINS RETURN: The Utes were happy to welcome Watkins back after he missed a game and several days of practice to go home to Memphis when his stepfather died.
When asked about how Watkins was doing, Boylen's first response was "winded," referring to his being a bit out of shape after missing nearly a week.
But Boylen quickly added, "His attitude's been great; his leadership's been great, and his focus has been great."
As for Watkins, who had 11 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes, he said he was grateful for the support of his teammates and coaches.
"I went out and played another game like I always do," he said. "I felt like (my stepdad) was watching over me in the game. I was just glad to be out there with my teammates again."
SHRINKING ROTATION: Three players who may not see much action the rest of the year, barring injuries, are sophomore Jordan Cyphers, freshman Chris Hines and JC transfer Matt Read. All three came in for just the final two minutes of the big win over TCU Saturday.
"We've shrunk our rotation," said Boylen. "Jordan Cyphers and Chris Hines are right on the edge of it through no fault of their own. They've practiced hard, but it has shrunk and we've played good basketball since it's been shrunk."
Read, who averaged 13 minutes a game in the first four games, has not played in four games this year and has played sparingly in several others.
BY THE NUMBERS: David Foster ranks No. 5 in the country in blocked shots with 4.3 per game and the Utes are No. 13 as a team with 6.6 per game.14 comments on this story
The Utes have also moved up to No. 26 in the nation in free throw percentage at 74.6 percent and are 81.6 percent (31-for-38) in their last three games, all victories.
Utah is holding opponents to 31.3 percent from 3-point range, which is 69th best in the nation, but are shooting just 30 percent from 3-point range, which is among the worst in the nation at No. 258.
Both games this week are at 8 p.m. MST, with Wednesday's game on The mtn. and Saturday's on CBS-C.