Greg Ostertag was not on the recently completed trip with his teammates.

The Jazz went unbeaten, were in high spirits and came together as a group.Coincidence?

Probably. The Jazz have won 11 of 12 games since their starting center went down with an injury, it's true. But it's safe to assume they would have still posted a glossy record had Ostertag been in the lineup.

That doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing when Ostertag returns to the lineup as early as this week, however. Quite frankly, the Jazz have enjoyed the small lineups they've used in Ostertag's absence. Karl Malone likes the challenge of guarding centers. Adam Keefe and Bryon Russell have been able to play long stretches on the court together. Greg Foster has enjoyed starting.

All those things could change when Ostertag returns - and it could cause some problems with team chemistry, especially if Ostertag takes awhile to get back into playing shape and can't produce right away. Dating back to the preseason - after the Jazz center signed the Big O. to a $39 million contract extension for six years - there have been problems. He showed up to training camp overweight. He was slapped to the ground by Shaquille O'Neal and played poorly early in the season. Just when he was beginning to be the type of player he was during last year's playoff run, he got hurt.

It's obvious Malone and others have been disgusted by Ostertag at times this year.

"I feel that I've given this organization and my teammates around me everything I've got," said Malone last week. "I played when I was hurt. I played when I was sick. I see a guy (Ostertag) they paid the most they've ever paid in our organization, he's a big part of what we're trying to do, and he doesn't come back in shape and then you have to work out that person even harder. And he gets a stress fracture."

Still, the Jazz veterans know Ostertag can help them in the playoffs - especially against teams with dominant centers like the Lakers, Rockets and Spurs. He'll be under plenty of pressure to produce, however.

SLOAN CONTRACT UPDATE: Remember all the hubbub about Jerry Sloan's contract during the All-Star break? Remember how the Jazz hadn't, as had been tradition for a number of years, given the coach his annual one-year extension as of that point? Remember how Jazz owner Larry H. Miller calmed the storm by saying Sloan had all the backing in the world by Jazz management, that everyone had just been too busy to do anything about the coach's extension and that it would get done sooner or later? Well, it's a month later and still nothing has happened.

LOOKING BACK: The 5-0 road trip for the Jazz was better than they could have even hoped for. They played well, no question about it. It should be pointed out, however, that the Jazz caught some breaks and beat some teams that are struggling. The Toronto Raptors, for instance, were still in the introduction stages after their recent trades and personnel changes. And both the Nets (Jayson Williams, Rony Seikaly) and the Bucks (Glenn Robinson, Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill) had top players sitting out. It still was a memorable trip and one that seemed to unify the players. It also helped the Jazz pull to within a couple games of the Seattle SuperSonics in their attempt to finish with the best record in the Western Conference for the second year in a row.

LOOKING AHEAD: Utah has a three-game home stand to look forward to - starting Monday night against the Houston Rockets - before heading out for one last extended road trip of the season at week's end. The Jazz host Sacramento on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday before heading east again to face Detroit on Sunday.

The Jazz will likely catch another break, as Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon is expected to be suspended for Monday night's game because of a fight he was involved in during Saturday's win at Phoenix. The Rockets will be trying to avoid a season sweep by the Jazz.

It will be the Jazz attempting to avoid a season sweep on Wednesday when the Kings come to town. While Sacramento has just 26 wins on the season, two are at Utah's expense. The Jazz dropped a pair of games in Arco Arena, but the Kings won't win in the Delta Center. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, haven't lived up to early-season promise. Detroit is probably this season's most disappointing team in the league. Grant Hill gives them marquee value - that's why Sunday's game against the Jazz was selected for NBC - but the team is in disarray.

Projected record for the week: 4-0.

*Monday, March 9


7 p.m.

*Wednesday, March 11


7 p.m.

*Friday, March 13


7 p.m.

Sunday, March 15


10 a.m.

* Home Game