Western Athletic Conference officials were a little concerned about attracting a crowd to Wednesday night's opening game of the WAC basketball tournament, which features the No. 8 and 9 teams. So they have to be happy that one of the two teams involved turned out to be Utah.
The Utes will meet San Diego State at 7:05 p.m. at the Huntsman Center for the right to play league champion Colorado State the following night at 9:35 p.m.On the other hand, the way some Ute fans are reacting to this year's team, they may not turn out in large numbers anyway for Wednesday's game, although there should be more interest in the Ute-Aztec matchup than a Wyoming-San Diego State contest.
After falling to the No. 8 spot in the WAC with last week's home losses to CSU and Wyoming, Utah coaches and players are trying to make the best of a tough situation. Now they must win four straight games to win the WAC tourney instead of three.
"It's a little sooner than I expected," said Ute Coach Lynn Archibald of Wednesday's game. But like most positive-minded coaches, he is trying to look at the bright side.
"I think it's good because it gives us a chance to play a game and feel better about ourselves," he said. "If we can win, we can get into a better rhythm going into the next game."
Although the Utes aren't one of the favorites to go all the way, they do have a couple of things working in their favor.
They're the only team with the home-court advantage, although they lost their last four home games. But they're the only team that will be sleeping in their own beds, and they should have the majority of the crowd on their side.
By playing the extra game, the Utes may be better off opening against the likes of a struggling San Diego State team than going against a New Mexico, UTEP or CSU right off the bat. It may give them a chance to get the kinks out, assuming they win, before meeting a team like CSU. The problem with the extra game is it will wear the team down more as the week goes on.
But the Utes have a lot working against them. They've been miserable in postseason play the last few years, losing seven straight postseason games (four WAC, two NIT and one NCAA). And they don't exactly have momentum heading into the tournament, with five losses in their last six games, including the four straight at home.
The only consolation for the Utes is that the Aztecs are in worse shape, with five straight WAC losses and their two starting guards off the team. Bryan Williams was kicked off the team after a shoplifting charge last month, and just last week Michael Best was dismissed for mysterious "medical reasons."
That leaves the Aztecs with Rodney Jones, a 2.8 scorer, and Tony Ross, who has been the sixth man most of the year, at the guardline. SDSU has a strong inside game with Mitch McMullen, Shawn Bell and Sam Johnson, but the bench is extremely thin, with freshmen and walk-ons.
One San Diego State official admitted the team is "just trying to get it done with" after a trying season.
Archibald says he isn't going to take any drastic measures in an effort to salvage the season with a WAC tourney win. He does plan to use Van Gray at the point more as his patience with Mark Lenoir at point guard is running thin. Off the bench, Keith Chapman may play more than he has recently.
"There's no other hope left - we've got to play the tournament now," said Archibald. "No one's ever done it (won four straight) before. You have to say we have a chance. But I doubt if anybbody else thinks we do."
Besides the game between the SDSU-Utah winner and Colorado State, other games Thursday include New Mexico vs. Air Force at 12:05 p.m., Wyoming vs. UTEP at 2:35 p.m. and BYU vs. Hawaii at 7:05 p.m.