The 10-1 Utes are off to their fastest start in a decade. They've won seven straight and are coming off a record-setting night a week ago. Next thing they know, it's Christmas, the coaching staff has long ago made the decision to let players go home for the holiday, and on Sunday they take off for five days in Hawaii to start Western Athletic Conference play. New Year's Eve on the Islands.

Oh, yeah.In between - tonight at 7 at the Spectrum - there's this matter of a Ute road game against a 3-5 Utah State team that seems improved over the Dec. 4 Aggies that Utah beat 84-76 in the Huntsman Center.

"One of our tougher road games besides the University of Michigan," says Ute assistant coach Donny Daniels, citing Utah's only lost game.

The holiday respite was a concern for the Ute coaching staff, Daniels admits. "If we were 1-10, he'd (Coach Rick Majerus) have been glad to let them go," joked Daniels, but now there's the question of whether it was wise to break up the Utes, even if only briefly.

Won't know that until tonight, Daniels says, but the Utes did have strong practices upon their return to the gym this week.

The holiday was a factor for Utah State Coach Kohn Smith, too: A week off after losing a game the Aggies had won until the Dons scored the last 13 points in San Francisco last Saturday, then four days to prepare for Big West play starting Wednesday in Logan.

Smith's solution was a couple of two-a-day practices with a goal of better defense to contain Utah's shooters and handle its arsenal of screens. Smith says he may change defenses and might even work in the triangle-and-two that Weber State used with some success against the Utes Dec. 17.

Remembering their last meeting, Smith wants to be ready for the things that beat the Aggies. Not just Josh Grant, who had 25 points, but big guys like Walter Watts and Paul Afeaki and the guy off the bench, Phil Dixon, who hurt the Aggies with 5-for-5 first-half shooting and broke two Ute records for threes (most, 7; best percentage, .875) last week against Wichita State.

"Grant's a very steady player, very efficient, but we can't allow their supplementary players to have big games," Smith says.

"Watts presents a problem," admits Smith. At 6-foot-8 and 265, he's 40 pounds heavier than what the Aggies have inside. Smith's plan is to rotate players against Watts - Randy Funk (6-7, 225), Jeff Parris (6-8, 215), freshman Eric Franson (6-7, 230).

Utah looks with caution at Aggies Jay Goodman, Kendall Youngblood and Rich Jardine. "We feel those three, on any given night, can really bury you," says Daniels.

Goodman scored 28, mostly in a huge Aggie second-half comeback, in the first meeting with Utah, but he hasn't approached that since. Smith wouldn't mind if tonight's game brought back old memories there. "It would really help, but I don't know if we have to have it," Smith says. Goodman has performed well as a point guard, points or not.

Youngblood (12 points against Utah) and Jardine have both been more consistent since, and Youngblood's shot 59 percent his last four games.

"This is a big game," says Daniels, noting coming conference play and wonderment over Utah's record, which admittedly inclues a lot of home games and some weak opponents. "This game will really show if we're worthy of that 10-1 record," he says.