LAS VEGAS Make no mistake, the Utah basketball team hasn't given up on its season yet.
A year ago, you could say the Utes had thrown in the towel when they came here, shortly after coach Ray Giacoletti had been fired, and they played listlessly in a 26-point opening-round loss to UNLV.
This time the Utes have the confidence they can play with anyone in the tournament and, if they play up to their potential, they could perhaps win three games and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The Utes have another tough opening-round game tonight against New Mexico in the final game of the first round at the Thomas & Mack Center. Tip-off time is 9:30 p.m. MDT (The mtn.), and the Utes say they'll be ready.
"We're excited about the tournament and to have our third season of basketball," coach Jim Boylen said, referring to non-conference and conference play as the first two seasons. "New Mexico is playing very well right now. I think it will be a very competitive game. We've proved that we can play with them."
According to Johnnie Bryant, the only Ute senior who plays regular minutes, the Utes will try to play like there's nothing to lose.
"We're going down there with the motto to just have fun," Bryant said. "At times this year, we got a little tense, so we need to go in there a little bit looser. I'm not saying to just play wild, but we need to be able to play the way we know we can play."
Junior Shaun Green said the Utes will be confident, knowing they've played every team in the league close this year, including the Lobos, who beat the Utes in overtime in Albuquerque and by one point in Salt Lake.
"The team attitude is really positive," Green said. "As the coaches have pointed out and we know, we have been in every game we've played this year. We feel we have a good shot at going down there and playing well."
Perhaps the biggest key for the Utes will be keeping New Mexico's J.R. Giddens in check. Giddens was named MWC co-player of the year after being player of the week five times. He averages 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
"He might be playing the best of anybody in the league right now," Boylen said. "He seems very comfortable in their system and he scores from a lot of different places. I also think he's an underrated defender."
The Utes are hoping for a quicker start than they've had in recent games and will go with the same starting lineup of the last three games with Luka Drca and Kim Tillie starting and Luke Nevill and Tyler Kepkay coming off the bench.If the Utes survive the late-nighter, they'll play another late one Friday night at 10 against the winner of the UNLV-TCU game.
Utes on the air
Utah (16-13, 7-9) vs. New Mexico (24-7, 11-5)
Today, 9:30 p.m. (MDT)
TV: The mtn.