What do you know, it's only mid-January, and the University of Utah's Runnin' and Rollin' Utes have an honest-to-goodness, genuine Big Game on their hands. The Utes take the court tonight against the University of New Mexico in the Huntsman Center, with first place, a probable national ranking and a lengthy winning streak on the line.
Tonight's matchup, which begins at 7:35, shapes up like this: The Lobos are 11-3 and the preseason favorites to win the Western Athletic Conference championship. But they've already been wounded, having suffered a rare home-court loss to Wyoming last week.The Utes, you've probably heard by now, are 13-1 overall, 2-0 in WAC play and ranked 26th nationally by Associated Press - one notch away from making the official Top 25. All of which is fairly remarkable when you consider that no one - least of all the Utes themselves - seems quite convinced this is all really happening.
"It's been a surprise to me as much as anyone else," says Utah's star forward, Josh Grant. "I never really expected this."
Nor did anyone else. The Utes, we remind you again, were picked to finish sixth in the WAC race. "We'll know in our next three games where we are," says assistant coach Joe Cravens, whose Utes face UNM, UTEP and Wyoming - reckoned to be the WAC's Big Three this season - in the next seven days. "We could easily lose all three games," says Cravens.
But don't bet on it. Utah's coaches are masters of the soft sell.
The Utes have won 10 consecutive games, which is partly the result of a stingy defense that limits opponents to 40.2 percent shooting, depth and strong rebounding. Maybe they don't even need luck, but just in case, Bill Marcroft, their veteran radio play-by-play announcer, has been working the games in the same red sweat suit, white shirt and gym shoes since the winning streak began (he does, however, wash them between games).
Just about everything has gone the Utes' way lately, unless you count Byron Wilson's sore rear end, which he used as a landing pad when Hawaii's Phil Lott undercut him last week. It probably won't be determined if Wilson, Utah's starting guard, can play tonight until game time.
"We're pleased to be where we are right now," says Utah coach Rick Majerus, who has won 17 of the 20 games he has coached since coming to Utah last year. "We have a challenging weekend coming up with two of the best teams not only in the conference but in the country. These games will show us where we stand."
New Mexico no doubt is smarting from last week's disappointing loss to Wyoming. The Lobos are hoping to make the most of center Luc Longley's senior season. They have won 20 or more games in each of the past four years, but they have not won a berth in the NCAA tournament since 1978.
Longley, who is known for his erratic play, was held to 10 and 12 points, respectively, in two games against Utah last year. But in one of those games he had nine assists.
"Longley is one of the best centers in the country and a for-sure NBA lotto pick," says Majerus. "He is probably the best passing center in the country and a very good shooter."
Like the Utes, the Lobos have good depth, balanced scoring and good shooters (they shoot 54 percent from the field). Two of last year's starters are now reserves - Kurt Miller, an Ogden native, and Marvin McBurrows. Eight different players have started at least two games for UNM this season.
Longley averages 18.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and is shooting a marvelous 70.5 percent from the field. UNM's forwards are 6-8 Khari Jaxon and 6-5 Ike Williams, a pair of sophomores who sat out last season as Prop. 48 cases. They are averaging 17.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game between them. The guards are veterans Willie Banks and Rob Robbins, who both average about 14.5 points per game.
The Lobos have won only one of their three road games this season (they beat Texas Tech, but lost to Arizona State and New Mexico State). They haven't played a road game in nearly a month.
The Utes, who split two games with UNM last season, will start their usual lineup of Grant, M'Kay McGrath, Walter Watts, Tyrone Tate and Wilson, if he is able. If not, Wilson will be replaced by Craig Rydalch.