When the University of Utah's Runnin' Utes clinched the Western Athletic Conference championship last week with still two weeks left in the season, it marked the earliest any team has ever won the title in the 28-year history of the WAC.
So, what to do with the rest of the season?The Utes, a team that has lived on the edge all year and survived on hard play and narrow victories, no longer are fighting for a championship. But they do still have two games remaining, beginning with tonight's locally televised contest against Colorado State in Fort Collins (tipoff: 7:35).
Perhaps not surprisingly, when the Utes returned to practice Monday - two days after their championship-clinching victory over BYU - they were something less than intense.
"Our practice was flat," said guard Craig Rydalch. "Coach (Rick Majerus) talked to us about it. He said, You've won a lot of games already. If you want to give up now, just let me know. He said we have a new incentive now to get a good seed in the NCAA tournament."
As if acting on cue, Wednesday's USA Today seeded Utah fourth in the West Regional in its predictions for the NCAA tournament. But to be seeded that high, the Utes probably must keep winning.
There are other less important incentives, as well:
- The national rankings. Utah is 10th in both polls.
- More school records. Utah, 24-2, is two victories short of the single-season school record.
- More WAC records. Utah, 13-1, is one victory short of the single-season record for WAC wins.
"Starting today, we are going to put what we've accomplished behind us and concentrate on what we have coming up," said Majerus on Monday.
"It can be hard to focus when you've already clinched the title," said assistant coach Jeff Judkins. "And CSU is playing well right now. The nice thing is we have only two games in two weeks, which will give us more time to prepare and to work on some things we haven't had time to work on, such as motion, plays and individual things. Josh (Grant) and Craig (Rydalch) haven't been shooting well. Byron (Wilson) finally broke out of his shell last week. And we can work on some other defenses. We haven't used the zone much this season."
Just as they were last week, the Utes will be shorthanded tonight. Paul Afeaki, their fine reserve center, is still recovering from a gun shot wound to the left shoulder. Initially, it was believed he would not be ready to play basketball again for a month, but now the word is that he could be ready for the WAC tournament.
"If I know him, he'll be back," said Judkins, echoing the sentiment of other team officials. "I would think after this week, he'll start doing some running. If he feels good, he'll probably give it a try. If he's not ready then, then he could be ready for the WAC tournament."
The Utes will miss Afeaki tonight, but their depth problems are nothing like Colorado State's. The Rams, because of injuries and illness, had just seven players available for last week's games. They are expected to have eight players ready this week. Coach Boyd Grant has said he might add a football player to his bench for tonight's game.
The Rams, who shared the regular-season WAC championship with BYU last year, have slipped to eighth in the league standings this year, with a record of 4-8 (13-11 overall). Despite their lack of depth, they claimed two road victories lastweek, over San Diego State and Hawaii.
In their first meeting this year, in Salt Lake City, Utah defeated CSU 55-51, thanks in large part to a late steal and dunk by Josh Grant. The Rams held a three-point lead with 8:53 left in the game.
"We had a very difficult time with them last time and were fortunate to win," says Majerus. "They are very hard to play on their home court, and it will be a very tough game for us."
The Rams' lineup consists of 6-7 forwards Aaron Atkinson (4.1 points per game) and Chuckie White (14.4), and guards Wayne Gipson (6.7), Lynn Tryon (13.5) and Mark Meredith (11.2).
Utah, which has five WAC road victories already this season, continues to be led by junior Josh Grant, who is averaging 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
The Utes, who have shot below 40 percent from the field in five of their last nine games, are still trying to revive their offense. In Saturday's BYU game Wilson ended a lengthy scoring slump with a 25-point performance. Wilson, who was injured early in the WAC season, hadn't scored in double figures in 13 games.
"When he got hurt, it really set him back," said Judkins. "When you get undercut, it makes you hesitant to take it inside hard. And his conditioning slipped when he was forced to miss those practices and a couple of games. Then we used other guys and we were winning and didn't really want to change things, so he wasn't getting his minutes."