First, the numbers. The University of Utah Runnin' Utes are sporting one of the flashiest records in all of college basketball these days: 11-1. They have won eight consecutive games - their longest winning streak in five years. They are off to their best start in a decade, in case you somehow haven't heard.
And yet, despite all of the above, no one is certain how good these Utes are, although we'll find out soon enough. The Utes open Western Athletic Conference play tonight in Honolulu against the University of Hawaii (tipoff: 10:30 MST), another surprising team.For the record, preseason polls picked the Utes to finish sixth in the WAC, which, at the time, seemed reasonable since four of their top seven players had never played major college basketball. So the Utes' fast start has been a surprise, although the reaction to their performance so far has been relatively subdued. That's probably because most observers realize Utah has benefitted from:
- Soft opponents. The Utes have played three non-Division 1 teams, plus a fourth team that is in its first full year of Division 1 play.
- A light road schedule. The Utes have played eight of their 12 games at home.
If you're looking for some hype from Ute coach Rick Majerus, forget it. "I know what a good team is," he has said repeatedly, "and we've got a long way to go. We're sixth, seventh or eighth in the WAC."
Don't believe it.
The Utes are playing better than that - at both ends of the court. On defense, they're holding opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field. On the boards, they're outrebounding opponents 40.8 to 31.4. On offense, they're shooting 48.9 percent from the field, 42.8 from three-point range (despite an 0-for-14 outing last Saturday).
Junior Josh Grant leads the team in scoring (17.8 per game), rebounding (7.5), blocks and steals. He is one of seven players averaging six points or better per game. Sixth man Phil Dixon has made 25 of 46 three-point shots this season (54.3 percent), and averages 8.8 points per game in limited duty. Another reserve, Paul Afeaki, is averaging 8 points and 4 rebounds per game - the kind of play that allows the Utes to give more rest to starter Walter Watts, who is averaging 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Like Utah, Hawaii has been playing well beyond expectations. The Rainbows, who return just one starter from last year's 25-10 team, were picked to finish seventh in the WAC. So far this season they're 8-3 and riding a five-game winning streak, having beaten Iona, Wichita State and Pitt in their last three games. They have won 15 of their last 16 home games.
The 'Bows are led by newcomer Ray Reed, a 6-6 junior forward who is averaging 24.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. "It was a foregone conclusion that he'd be a star," says one Hawaii official. "The main concern was that he couldn't play defense. But he is a legitimate scorer."
Guards Phil Lott and Troy Bowe average 17.1 and 10.1 points, respectively, and forward Tim Sheppard averages 9.9 points and 7.8 boards. Center Chris Walz, a 6-8 sophomore who was a relief pitcher for Hawaii's baseball team for two years, averages 7.5 points and 3.2 rebounds.
The Utes beat the Rainbows twice during the regular season last year, but lost to them in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Majerus has been concerned about how the Utes will play this week after their recent layoff and their lengthy stay in Hawaii. The Utes took three days off at Christmastime, then returned to beat Utah State last Saturday night - their lone game in the past 11 days. They flew to Honolulu Sunday morning and have spent the week there awaiting tonight's game.