Losing twice to Hawaii this year isn't as bad as it sounds, says BYU center Michael Smith.

The Cougars open WAC Tournament play tonight at 7 p.m. (live on KSL-Channel 5) in the Huntsman Center. Their opponent is Hawaii, a team they couldn't beat during conference play. In the 9:30 game Utah plays Colorado State."We're in an all-win, no-lose situation. It's the kind you dream of," Smith said. "We're sort of in a Cinderella-type situation. People are not expecting us to win and be in the NCAA tournament, but we think we can."

Of course, thinking and doing are two different things. The Cougars finished the year with a 14-14 record while Hawaii comes into the tournament at 16-11. The only chance either team has at an NCAA berth is to win the league playoffs.

"I think the game's a tossup," said Hawaii Coach Riley Wallace.

Once considered a nearly insurmountable task for the Rainbows, beating BYU became a regular occurrence this season. On Jan. 14 Hawaii won its first game ever over BYU in Provo, 77-73. Wallace termed the victory the biggest of his career. A month later, for good measure, the 'Bows won 68-66 in Honolulu.

Prior to this season the Rainbows had beaten the Cougars just three times in 22 attempts.

In his second season at Hawaii, Wallace has executed a phenomenal turnabout. The Rainbows won only four games last year and were criticized as perhaps the worst NCAA Division I team in the nation.

"We might have been," said Wallace.

Hawaii was picked to finish eighth in the preseason polls by coaches and media members, but ended up in fourth place.

In the early going the 'Bows began to show signs of life by beating Texas and Oregon. Hawaii closed out the year with a 71-70 win that knocked New Mexico out of a tie for the league championship.

BYU Coach Ladell Andersen likes his odds. "It's pretty tough to beat a team three times in one season," he said last week.

However, Andersen was cautious on the eve of the tournament and backed up slightly. "It's hard to beat someone three times, yes, that seems to be the case. But I'm not saying it's impossible."

In today's early games, Air Force and New Mexico met at noon and Wyoming and UTEP at 2:30.

The Rams, 20-8, won both games against Utah this year, by scores of 63-49 and 75-64. They are riding on the fortunes of forward Pat Durham, a contender for WAC Player of the Year. Durham is sixth in the league in scoring (19.2) and third in rebounding (8.11).

Utah, 16-16, finally (temporarily?) shook off a slump that had the Utes losing five of their final six games, by beating San Diego State 70-57 in Wednesday's elimination game.

Utah's problems peaked on the last day of the season with a loss to Wyoming. Coach Lynn Archibald echoed an oft-used cliche by saying the upcoming game is the most important of the year. "It's the most important game of the year for all eight teams," he said, "because there's only going to be four left after Thursday night."