Four decades ago, the University of San Francisco had the top college basketball program in the country, winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and topping the University of Utah along the way both years.

Two decades ago, the Dons were the No. 1-ranked team in the country much of the 1976-77 season and, although they didn't win the national championship, they did defeat Utah at the Special Events Center.This year, the once-proud Dons are back in the NCAAs after a long drought. Thursday night they'll meet Utah in a first-round game at 5:55 p.m. (CBS-TV) at the sold-out Boise Pavillion.

So where did the San Francisco program go the last couple of decades? After the Dons went to the NCAAs in 1982 and lost in the first round to Boston College, the basketball program was actually disbanded for three seasons because of alleged NCAA violations.

It's taken several years to build the program back up, and under third-year coach Phil Mathews, the Dons have turned into a winning team again and are making their first NCAA appearance in 16 years.

The Dons were favored to win the West Coast Conference this year, but thanks to a midseason slump when they lost seven of 10 games, they ended up in fifth place in the league. However, after revamping their starting lineup and inserting a pair of freshmen guards, Dony Wilcher and Ali Thomas, they won their final three league games by an average of 27 points and then won three games in the WCC tournament.

The Dons are much smaller than Utah with their starters averaging just 6-foot-3 compared to Utah's 6-7 average. Six-foot-6, 230-pound Hakeem Ward, whom Utah coach Rick Majerus compares to ex-Ute Walter Watts, is the leading scorer at 17.0 points per game, while Damian Cantrell leads the Dons with 9.9 rebounds per game in addition to 11.1 points. Zerrick Campbell averages 9.5 points per game, while Thomas scores 10.9 points and Wilcher 4.4.

The Dons have good depth with senior guard M.J. Nodilo scoring 10.3 points and walk-on freshman Ra'oof Sadat, who scored 18 points in the WCC championship game. Mark Nees, a senior from Germany, is the tallest player at 7-foot but averages just 12 minutes and about two points and two rebounds per game. Jamaal Cobbs, a high school teammate of Utah's Andre Miller, started most of the year at point guard, and leads the team in assists.

"Their team is very athletic and quick," said Majerus. "Ward is a very accomplished inside player and Thomas and Nodilo are good 3-point shooters. I'm worried about this team."

UTE NOTES: Majerus was on ESPN's Up Close program Tuesday afternoon and early Wednesday morning. He taped the pro-gram with Chris Meyers on Sunday . . . Majerus said he can never remember losing in the first round of a tournament until last week in Las Vegas . . . The Ute players and coaches flew to Boise Tuesday night and were to hold a mandatory practice open to the public Wednesday at 5 p.m. . . . . If the Utes win Thursday, they'll play Saturday in the second game at approximately 2:45 p.m. . . . Utah basketball teams have played in Boise twice before, once under Majerus. In 1983, under Jerry Pimm, the Utes upset Illinois and UCLA on their way to the Sweet 16. Three years ago, they defeated Long Beach State before losing to Mississippi State . . . The Dons lead the all-time series with Utah 7-2.