Rick Majerus, Utah's head basketball coach, has had another week of sleepless nights. One night he rose from his bed at midnight and watched videotapes - starring the Wyoming Cowboys - until 3 a.m. He did the same the next night.
With the Utes headed for a big showdown with Wyoming, Majerus was looking for any edge he could get against the Cowboys. But the sight of all those Wyoming victories didn't help him sleep any easier."Wyoming is the class of the league," said Majerus. "They are the team with the greatest talent and greatest depth. They're the elite of the league, a Top 10 team."
That's the challenge the Utes face Thursday night, when they meet the Cowboys in a battle for sole possession of first place in the Western Athletic Conference (tipoff is 7:30).
By all the standard measures, it appears to be a perfect matchup. Utah is 15-1, 4-0 in WAC play; Wyoming 13-2, 3-0. Utah, winner of 12 consecutive games, is ranked 22nd in the national polls; Wyoming is 25th. Utah has one of the top players in the West in Josh Grant; so does Wyoming in Reggie Slater. Utah ranks first in the WAC in three-point shooting; Wyoming is second. Utah ranks second in the WAC in rebounding, Wyoming is first. Utah is second in the league in scoring defense; Wyoming leads the league in scoring offense.
The Utah-Wyoming meeting is the biggest game so far in the young WAC season, but it won't be found on your television set. According to one Utah athletic department official, Wyoming, worried about attendance, refused to allow the game to be televised, even after the Utes offered to give the Cowboys part of their share of the rights fees.
"Utah is a Top 20 team," said UTEP coach Don Haskins last week. He also said, "The (WAC) team that's playing the best is Wyoming. They're Top 10 caliber, and no one's even talking about them."
Majerus agrees: "(The Cowboys) present all kinds of problems. They have two centers like we do, only theirs are seven feet, plus they have three great guards and Slater, who reminds me of (NBA star) Charles Oakley, only Slater is better. He has the best body in the league. If we have a couple of guys who don't come to play, we don't stand a chance."
The Utes' chances aren't good to begin with, if history means anything. Utah has lost eight of its last nine games against Wyoming, and 16 of its last 20.
One of Majerus' biggest concerns tonight is his team's health. Center Paul Afeaki will wear a flak jacket to protect bruised ribs. Guard Byron Wilson has missed most of the last three games, plus 10 days of practice, because of a bruised rear end. He's still not fully recovered and his conditioning is lacking, but he did resume practicing this week (albeit with a specially made pad). Guard Jimmy Soto and forward M'Kay McGrath also are nursing injuries.
Majerus partly blames injuries for his team's declining offensive performance in recent games - "We're playing so many guys, and so many injured guys" - but the Utes still managed to defeat New Mexico and nationally ranked UTEP at home last week.
"Utah will be real tough for us," says Slater. "They've proven themselves by beating some good teams. We're not planning on losing any games in our own arena, but it will be a good game. It will be close."
Slater, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound all-conference forward, will be a key figure in tonight's game. He totaled 49 points and 20 rebounds in two games against Utah last season. He is averaging 21.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game this season, and shooting 63 percent from the field.
Walter Watts, Utah's 6-foot-8, 260-pound center, will be assigned to defend Slater, with relief help from Grant and Afeaki.
Aside from Slater, the Wyoming lineup consists of 6-6 forward Tim Breaux (13.1 points per game), 6-11 center Reggie Page (7.7), 6-5 guard Travis Butler (6.0) and 6-1 guard Maurice Alexander .
They present a formidable challenge - so formidable that Majerus originally planned to travel to Wyoming Tuesday night, one day ahead of the team, "to get a head start" on game preparation, but he changed his mind Tuesday afternoon.
"We're playing very hard and playing together well," says Majerus, who hopes that's the case again tonight.