As the defending champion and No. 1 seed from the Mountain Division, the Utah basketball team figured it deserved better than the winner of Tuesday's Hawaii-UNLV game for its opening game in the Western Athletic Conference tournament tonight.

What a choice. A team that had been ranked in the top 25 for part of the year and coming on strong after a midseason slump or a talented team playing on its home-court. If they could have, the Utes would have chosen the winner of any of the other three brackets.Instead they ended up with UNLV, which defeated the Rainbows 64-59 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Utes and Rebels will meet at 10 p.m. MST in a game televised on ESPN-TV.

"We've just got to live with it," said Ute coach Rick Majerus. "Having to play Vegas a third time and in their building is very difficult."

Majerus, who came down to Las Vegas a day ahead of his team to watch the UNLV-Hawaii game, would have preferred to play Hawaii, a team the Utes hadn't played in two years. "There is a big difference. This is like playing a road game," he said.

"We always have to do it the hard way," said senior guard Drew Hansen. "Last year, New Mexico took third and we had to play them in the semifinals and then TCU in the finals. Before that, we had to play at New Mexico two years in a row."

The Utes come into the tourney 25-2, ranked No. 5 in both major polls. They are looking to get a No. 2 seed in next week's NCAA tourney for the second year in a row and Majerus thinks they might get one even if they lose in the first round. However, he's doing his best to make sure the Utes are more ready than they were in last year's first round.

Last year they fell behind SMU early and trailed nearly the entire game by as many as 14 points. To win, they had to hold Mustangs scoreless for the final eight minutes and get that miraculous tip-in by Keith Van Horn at the buzzer to win 59-58.

In UNLV, the Utes will be facing a team that they handled easily in Las Vegas in late January 67-54, but struggled to beat in Salt Lake last week 79-68.

The Rebels have been playing better since center Keon Clark was suspended for the season and starting guard Corky Ausborne quit the team. As one Las Vegas writer put it, "it was a case of addition by subtraction." Bill Bayno's club seems to have better chemistry these days and are getting good play from Tyrone Nesby, Kevin Simmons and Kaspars Kambala.

The starting guards will be Mark Dickel and Brian Keefe, who had 19 points against Hawaii. The Rebels will miss Greedy Daniels, who aggravated a pulled hamstring against Hawaii and is doubtful for tonight's game.

The Utes will probably run 10 players at the Rebels with starters Michael Doleac, Hanno Mottola, Alex Jensen, Andre Miller and Hansen and reserves Trace Caton, Jordie McTavish, David Jackson, Jon Carlisle and Britton Johnsen.

"I want to win it again," said Miller. "There's about five good teams in the tournament that can beat anybody and we just have to be ready for it."

The winner faces the winner of the Fresno State-San Diego State game Friday at 10 p.m.

UTE NOTES: The Ute players arrived Wednesday and practiced in the evening at Durango High School . . . Jackson, who missed two games with a sprained ankle two weeks ago, was hurting in practice earlier this week after enduring a root canal . . . Caton has been playing with an injured thigh for more than a month . . . The Utes have won four straight in the Thomas & Mack Center, counting last year's WAC tourney.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Utah vs. UNLV

Thursday 10 p.m. MST

Thomas & Mack Center

TV: ESPN

Radio: KALL (910 AM)

PREVIOUS GAMES: Utah 67, UNLV 54 in Las Vegas; Jan. 24 Utah 79, UNLV 68 in Salt Lake City Feb. 23.

UTE KEYS: The Utes (25-2) will try to take the crowd out of the game by jumping on the Rebels early. As usual, defense will be the key. They need to keep Brian Keefe from getting many good 3-point looks and not let Kevin Simmons or Tyrone Nesby go off. With Greedy Daniels out, Andre Miller needs to take advantage at the offensive end.

REBEL KEYS: With the loss of Daniels to a hamstring pull, the Rebels (17-12) are basically down to a seven-man team. So they can't afford to get into foul trouble against Utah's big men. Kaspars Kambala, the big freshman from Latvia, must hold his own inside against Michael Doleac and Hanno Mottola. Mark Dickel will need to keep Miller in check.