With the way cleared for a possible championship battle with New Mexico next Saturday, the Utah basketball team has to make sure it doesn't stumble in any of three games before then, beginning tonight when Air Force pays a visit.
The Utes and Falcons tip it off at 7:30 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.By defeating Colorado State last Saturday, the Utes put themselves in position to tie for the WAC Mountain Division title by winning the rest of their games. That would put them at 12-2, the same record New Mexico will have if it wins all but the Utah game.
Everyone is looking ahead to the rematch with the Lobos Feb. 28, but coach Rick Majerus knows his team can't look past anyone, despite its 21-2 record and No. 6 national ranking.
"It will be a typical Air Force team," he said. "Air Force is always disciplined, determined, smart and their work ethic and commitment and love of the game is second to none."
The Falcons come into the game with a 2-9 WAC record and a 9-13 overall mark after losing to BYU Thursday night 79-60.
Air Force is led by all-WAC guard Jarmica Reese, who averages 19.3 points per game. Other starters include senior center Mike Freeman (13.4 ppg), Louis Stewart (8.3 ppg), John Schuck (5.2 ppg) and Miguel Garcia (3.9 ppg).
The Utes lead the series with Air Force 39-6 and have lost to the Falcons just once since Majerus came to Utah - a 91-89 overtime defeat in 1994. The last home loss came in 1989 when Air Force won 67-57.
Utah will come into the game in good shape, although backup guard David Jackson will miss the game because of a sprained ankle suffered in practice earlier this week. Trainer Gerald Fischer said Jackson should be back for Monday's game with UNLV.
With only one game this week, the Utes have had time to rest up a little and get over illnesses and minor injuries. Majerus even gave the team a rare day off Wednesday.
Look for even more playing time for freshman Britton Johnsen, who got some minutes against Colorado State and scored six points. He'll play the small forward spot and give Alex Jensen more rest and play some minutes that Jackson usually gets.
Jensen and Hanno Mottola will start at forwards, with Michael Doleac at center and Andre Miller and Drew Hansen at guards.
"We have to keep the momentum going and hopefully we can ride this committed team effort into the next four WAC games," said Majerus.
UTE NOTES: Tonight's game will not be televised, but each of the Utes' last three games will be on TV. Monday's home game with UNLV will be on ESPN at 10 p.m., Thursday's game at UTEP will be on KJZZ and Saturday's finale with New Mexico will be on ESPN . . . The Utes are still ranked No. 1 in the country in rebound margin at 12.1 and are fourth in scoring defense at 56.0 points per game. The Utes are also 18th in free throw percentage.