Facing their stiffest test in three weeks, the University of Utah Runnin' Utes will seek their seventh consecutive victory tonight when they play Wichita State in the Huntsman Center.
The game will begin at 7:35.Wichita State, 4-3, a traditional power that slumped last season, lost its first two games of the year, against Georgia and Dartmouth, but since then the Shockers have won four of five games. They defeated Alabama (in overtime), Delaware State, Oklahoma State and Drake. They lost their last game, to Southwest Missouri State in overtime.
"They're going to be a tough team for us," says Utah guard Tyrone Tate. "They beat Alabama."
The Shockers are a veteran team, with four starters returning from last year's team, which finished with a 10-19 record. Their lineup consists of 6-6 forwards John Cooper and Claudis Johnson, 6-11 center Phil Mendelson, 6-0 guard Robert George and 6-3 point guard Paul Guffrovich. Cooper, who is considered an All-American candidate, is averaging 21.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He led the Shockers in both categories last season. Guffrovich averages 16 points per game and George 10.3.
The Utes own a surprising 9-1 record and are one game away from a week-long Christmas vacation. "If we can go into Christmas break with only one loss, that would be phenomenal," said Utah coach Rick Majerus earlier this week. "It's a credit to the guys. They've worked hard."
Leading the way as always is junior Josh Grant, who continues to lead the Utes in scoring and rebounding (with averages of 17.8 and 7.4, respectively). He won another fan on Wednesday night with a 17-point outing in just 20 minutes of play against Morehead State.
"He's a professional-type player who can do everything," said Morehead State coach Tommy Gaither. "He can play outside or inside. He handles the ball well and can pass it. He has everything it takes to be an outstanding player in college and in the pros."
The Utes' depth continues to be a big factor in their fast start. Walter Watts and Paul Afeaki are splitting the job at center; Tate and Jimmy Soto split the point guard spot; Byron Wilson splits the off-guard job with Phil Dixon and Craig Rydalch, who also share time with small forward M'Kay McGrath. Nine Utah players play an average of 17 or more minutes per game.
Following tonight's game, the Utes won't play again until next Saturday, when they meet Utah State in Logan. The Utes will leave the following morning for Honolulu, where they will spend several days before meeting the University of Hawaii in their Western Athletic Conference opener.