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The University of Utah basketball team begins practice today in preparation for the 1991-92 season, and my how times have changed. Yesterday's underdog is today's favorite.

Unlike last year, expectations will run high this season for Utah. After all, the Utes return all but one of their top 11 players from a team that won the Western Athletic Conference championship, finished with a 30-4 record and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament."I told the team `Heavy is the head that wears the crown,' and I think they will have to realize that," said coach Rick Majerus.

With the Huntsman Center undergoing repairs this week, the Utes opened practice today in the university's physical education building. They will practice the remainder of the week at East High School.

The Utes, who earned a reputation for adversity last year, will start practice without their best player - Josh Grant, last season's Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Grant underwent knee surgery early last month and won't be able to practice until early December. Another key player, Craig Rydalch, who underwent ankle surgery, will practice on only a limited basis for the first month.

"As we start practice, the biggest question mark is going to be our health," said Majerus. "There's no question that we won't expect Josh much before the first of December, and Rydalch will be limited in what he can do for a while. But . . . these injuries will give an opportunity for growth to our younger players and our more inexperienced ones."

The Ute team of a year ago returns almost intact, the one exception being graduated center Walter Watts. The returnees, besides Grant and Rydalch, are Byron Wilson, Jimmy Soto, Tyrone Tate, Craig Rydalch, Phil Dixon, Paul Afeaki, M'Kay McGrath, Barry Howard and Larry Cain.

"This is a good group of guys, and I'm excited about what the new players can bring to the table," said Majerus.

Four new players will join the Utes this season - Antoine Davison, a transfer from College of Eastern Utah; Thomas Wyatt, Kelley Walker and Deon Mims, who are all Prop. 42 cases. Mims likely will redshirt the season.

The annual Night with the Runnin' Utes, which will feature an intrasquad game, will be Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Huntsman Center. The Utes' first exhibition game will match them against Athletes in Action on Nov. 4.

Said Majerus, "The things we need to improve on this year are Byron and Phil need to improve their defense, and Byron needs to improve dramatically on his rebounding. M'Kay has to take care of the ball and become a better passer. The guards and the wing players have to become much better at feeding the ball to the post and getting it inside. We have to get the ball to our inside players down low. I think we'll be more multi-faceted this year, in terms of Byron and M'Kay posting more. We're looking to break a little more. We'll probably extend the pick-up point of our defense."