Over the years, the University of Utah has gradually upgraded its non-conference basketball schedule. Early in Rick Majerus' reign, the Utes feasted on a steady diet of Humboldt States, but in recent years, teams such as Texas, Wake Forest, Arizona and Southern California have appeared on a regular basis.

A quick look at this year's Ute schedule shows games with Wake Forest, for the third year in a row, and Providence, a Final Eight team a year ago. But a closer examination reveals a cream-puff lineup of mediocre or worse teams picked to finish at the bottom of their respective conferences (according to Street and Smith Magazine).Let's see, there's Loyola Marymount, picked for last in the West Coast Conference; Oregon State, picked for last in the Pac-10; Wisconsin-Milwaukee, picked for last in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference; Cal-Irvine, picked for last in the Big West; Cal State Fullerton, picked for 4th in the Big West; and Azusa Pacific, an NAIA team.

Three local schools, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah, round out the Ute schedule.

Majerus acknowledges he has an easier schedule this year, but he has legitimate explanations for some of his opponents.

"Did I back it off a little bit? Yeah, I backed it off because I had to get guys home to play," he said. "(Michael) Doleac has never played in the state of Oregon and I've been trying to play up there for years. Andre (Miller) deserved a game in L.A. He was recruited on the premise that he'd play in L.A every year and they changed this stupid league so we don't have a game in California this year."

The home games against Fullerton and Irvine are return games for the ones the Utes played in California last year. The Azusa Pacific game is the annual patsy "exam week" game.

As for the Wisconsin-Milwaukee game two days after Christmas, Majerus makes no apologies for going back to his old hometown to be with his widowed mother during the holidays.

"Milwaukee is for me," he said. "It's for my mom. If that's selfish, well, hey, I think I deserve it."

ADD SCHEDULE: Majerus said another major problem with getting a good schedule is that many of the better programs won't play his team.

"I would play UCLA home and home every year for the rest of my life," he said. "Same thing with Southern Cal. But they won't play us, so I have to find whoever I can down there."

Majerus said the schedule should improve dramatically next year.

"Next year, our schedule, without reservation, will be in the top 10 in the country," he said. "We've got the Maui tournament, we've got Texas, we've got Wake (Forest) again. I'm also looking at North Carolina and Michigan. I'll have the schedule back up to where it's been."

JOHNSEN PROGNOSIS: The bad news out of Ute camp last week was that heralded freshman Britton Johnsen might be out of action for two months and would likely have to redshirt this year. Just a couple of days into camp Johnsen was having a hard time jumping and was diagnosed with patella tendinitis in his left knee.

Last week, Majerus said Johnsen's injury would be monitored closely. If it wasn't better by Jan. 1, he would have surgery and definitely miss the 1997-98 campaign.

On Monday, however, Johnsen said his knee had improved significantly in recent days and he was hopeful about playing this season, perhaps some games next month.

"Last week I thought I'd have to redshirt for sure, but it feels a lot better the last few days," said Johnsen, whose older brother, Jeff, is now serving an LDS mission.

"We're looking at every avenue we can pursue, but I've always erred on the side of caution," said Majerus. "I'd rather lose every game than compromise his career."

UTE NOTES: The Utes plan to sign four players next week during the early signing period. Three players have already made verbal commitments - 6-6 Brad Crockett of Viewmont High, 6-2 Ben Heusser of Preston, Idaho, and 6-10 Tyson Johnston of Steamboat Springs, Colo. . . . Britton said he was still undecided about whether or not he'd go on a mission after his freshman season. Trace Caton and Jon Carlisle are two other potential missionaries after their freshman seasons . . . The Utes play a team from Hungary in an exhibition game Thursday night at the Huntsman Center.