Just about four hours earlier they had defeated Arkansas to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. And already the Utah basketball team was back home in Salt Lake, where a throng of red-clad supporters awaited the players as they departed the short flight from Boise Saturday night.

As each player emerged from the jetway, the enthusiastic crowd would cheer and yell out his name. "Yea, Andre . . . Hooray, Michael . . . Way to go, Alex" it went as each player self-consciously walked into the group of well-wishers. Then there were the obligatory stops for autographs and the bright lights of television interviews for several of the players.Heck, this was just for getting to the Sweet 16. What's going to happen if the Utes win a couple of more games this week and move on to the Final Four?

Next up for the victorious Utes, now 27-3 on the year, is West Virginia (24-8) Thursday night at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Calif. Tip-off will be at 6:05 p.m. with the Arizona-Maryland game to follow immediately after. The two winners will play Saturday afternoon at a time to be determined with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

Even though they were favored to win both games in Boise last week, to beat San Francisco and Arkansas and emerge as one of the final 16 teams is quite an accomplishment for the Utes. Just ask Kansas, Cincinnati and South Carolina, three top programs that won't be dancing this week.

By making the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row, the Utes joined some elite company. Just how many remaining tourney teams would you figure have made it that far three years in row?

Would you believe just three?

That's right, besides Utah, the only other two are Kentucky, which eliminated the Utes each of the past two years, and Arizona, a possible roadblock to the Final Four if both the Utes and Wildcats win their games Thursday.

Duke . . . North Carolina . . . UCLA . . . none of those schools made it to the Sweet 16 each of the past three years.

But the unheralded Utes, who don't seem to impress many experts, just keep on winning year after year.

"I'm just so pleased to be going back to the Sweet 16," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.

The coach said he knew nothing about West Virginia after Saturday night's win, but you can bet by the time his team started practicing Monday afternoon, he knew plenty about Thursday's opponent.

The Mountaineers, who upset Cincinnati on a last-second 3-pointer by Jarrod West, are similar to the Utes' first two opponents in that they like to use a full-court press and pressure the ball all over the court. They are coached by Gale Catlet, who has been at the school for 20 years with eight previous NCAA appearances. This is his first appearance in the final 16.

All five starters are seniors, led by forward Damian Owens, who averages 17.l points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Guards Adrian Pledger and West average 12.2 and 10.3, respectively, while forward Brent Solheim and center Brian Lewin score 8.5 and 7.5, respectively.

In their first-round game against Temple, they won handily, 82-52, before edging the Bearcats 75-74.

UTE NOTES: The Utes played at the Arrowhead Pond arena last season in the John Wooden Classic against Arizona . . . The North Carolina-Michigan State game will be played opposite the Utah game in the East Regional, with the Washington-Connecticut game to follow . . . Perhaps the two most famous West Virgina basketball players are NBA legend Jerry West and Jazz radio announcer Hot Rod Hundley . . . Approximately 1,250 tickets are available for Utah fans in Anaheim, up considerably from the 350 allotted in Boise. Still the tickets are first being made available to Crimson Club members, then season-ticket holders on Tuesday before any remaining tickets are made available to the public. Some tickets might be available as late as Thursday if Maryland and West Virgina fans don't use up all of their allotted tickets.