Kicking back is not on Utah coach Jim Boylen’s agenda, even if he is enjoying the view from the top of the Mountain West Conference.
The standings tell one story, and it’s a comfortable tale for the Utes, who are sitting on a two-game lead with two weeks to go in the regular season.
But the schedule hints at a different story, and it leaves Boylen feeling uneasy. In the next week, Utah (19-7, 10-2 MWC) will play UNLV, Brigham Young and New Mexico.
After the Utes host the Rebels (20-7, 8-5) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, they will hit the road to face the Cougars (20-6, 8-4) on Saturday and the Lobos (17-10, 8-4) on Tuesday.
“I call it the gauntlet, and we’re getting prepared to do that,” Boylen said. “It’s a very tough stretch of games. We have to be prepared to get everybody’s best shot.”
By the middle of next week, if Utah falls back to the pack, a microscope might be required to find separation between the conference contenders. It’s a good bet that tiebreakers will be required to seed the conference tournament, which will be at the Thomas & Mack Center from March 11 to 14.
“We’ve got four or five teams in the hunt,” Boylen said. “I think we’re all jockeying for the highest possible seed. There’s going to be no easy out, no easy game.”
UNLV, trailing the Utes by 21/2 games, is in an unenviable position because of costly road losses to Colorado State, Texas Christian and Wyoming.
“We dropped a couple you can’t afford to drop, and when you do that, it makes you a long shot for the title,” Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s a tough lesson, but that’s the lesson to be learned. Every game is important, and you’ve got to win the ones you have a chance to win.
“It will be a good final two weeks of the season, and it will be a great weekend of conference tournament play. A lot of the teams in the top division are playing each other, and there’s still a lot to be determined.”
Also still in the hunt is San Diego State (18-7, 8-4), but it will be without sophomore forward Billy White for at least tonight’s home game against BYU. White suffered a hyperextended left knee 44 seconds into the Aztecs’ 75-49 loss at New Mexico on Saturday.
After playing at Utah and hosting Air Force on March 4, UNLV closes the regular season at San Diego State on March 7. The Utes and Aztecs are both unbeaten at home in conference play.
The Rebels boosted their postseason resume with a 75-74 victory over BYU on Saturday, completing a two-game sweep of the Cougars.
“Everybody is beating everybody else, and it all comes down to who can win road games,” UNLV senior Wink Adams said. “We’ve got two tough ones at Utah and San Diego State, and it’s crucial for us to win those games. We can’t dwell on the losses. We’ve just got to win these next three games.”
Adams helped lead the Rebels to a 75-65 victory over the Utes on Jan. 24 in Las Vegas.
New Mexico appears to have the easiest remaining schedule. After hosting TCU today, the Lobos play at Colorado State, host Utah and finish at Wyoming.
The Mountain West’s story could be a cliffhanger on the final Saturday of the regular season, and that’s exactly what Boylen predicted when he analyzed the contenders in August.
“I felt it was going to be exactly how it is, and saying that, I didn’t know we were going to be on top,” Boylen said.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.REMAINING FOES FOR REBELS, UTES
UNLV (20-7, 8-5 MWC)
Wednesday at Utah
March 4 — Air Force
March 7 — at San Diego State
UTAH (19-7, 10-2)
Wednesday — UNLV
Saturday — at Brigham Young
March 3 — at New Mexico
March 7 — Texas Christian