COLORADO SPRINGS — With nine straight victories, the Utah basketball team should make it 10 when it takes on Air Force at Clune Arena today at 3 p.m. (KJZZ-TV).
The key word here is "should." The Utes could easily lose if they don't remember a lesson from last season when they saw a similar streak snapped by a supposedly inferior Falcon team.
Last year the Utes waltzed in here on a seven-game winning streak, seemingly on their way to an outright Mountain West Conference title and a likely NCAA bid.
Instead they stumbled and lost 71-60 to the Falcons, which left them to share the MWC title with BYU and Wyoming and without an NCAA bid.
Utah coach Rick Majerus, who wasn't around for that embarrassing loss, knows Air Force is improved under second-year coach Joe Scott, and he remembers at least one loss here (1994) and several close calls, including the 64-63 Alex Jensen-led come-from-behind win in 2000.
"I always say that anybody who wants to fly a jet and stand up to a bul-
let isn't afraid to dive after a loose ball," said Majerus. "Without even looking at them, I know they'll be extraordinarily competitive. They're the kind of kids I'd love to coach."
Under Scott, the Falcons' record hasn't improved much over the Reggie Minton days, but he's upgraded the schedule substantially with no more non-Division I games. Even Utah can't make that claim.
In MWC, they are 0-2 despite nearly upsetting New Mexico in The Pit Monday night. The Falcons led the Lobos 42-35 with just over five minutes to play only to be outscored 15-5 for a 50-47 loss.
As usual, the Falcons aren't a very big team, with a 6-7 center in junior Tom Bellairs and 6-6 forward Joel Gerlach as the only starters taller than 6-3. Other starters include 6-3 A.J. Kuhle and guards Lamoni Yazzie and Vernard Jenkins.
Yazzie leads the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game, followed by Gerlach (11.9 ppg) and Bellairs (10.8 ppg). Bellairs, who has been one of the top rebounders in the league the past two years, is down this year in his numbers but still leads the team with 5.7 boards per game. Freshman reserve Tim Keller led the scoring against New Mexico with 13 points.
"When you look at them, you think you probably should beat them, because you're bigger than them, taller than them and quicker," said Jeff Johnsen, who led the Utes with 16 points here last year. "But it's a tough place to play. And we'll definitely have motivation after last year."
Johnsen (9.5 ppg) will start along with his brother, Britton (10.9 ppg), at forward with Nick Jacobson (15.9 ppg) and Travis Spivey (5.6 ppg) on the guardline and Lance Allred (3.0 ppg) in the middle.
Jacobson will try to continue his torrid 3-point shooting of late, which included 5 of 8 against UNLV and 7 of 10 against San Diego State. However, he's struggled in four road games this year, making only 6 of 22 attempts.
After today's game, the Utes head down to Albuquerque where they'll meet New Mexico Monday night.