U. staying grounded against Falcons
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The Utah Utes are down to the last four games of the regular season with one tonight at Air Force.

But as opposed to last season when the Utes were in the hunt for the regular season title, Utah (5-7, 12-14) isn't concerning itself with the regular season crown or positioning itself with this seed or that one for the conference tournament.

Slipping below .500 has humbled the Utes a bit more than that, leaving them with the simple goal of getting what momentum they can for the tournament.

Luckily for them the schedule is a friendly one for such a task. After tonight's contest against the Falcons (1-11, 9-16), the Utes have a home game against Wyoming (2-11, 9-18) on Saturday followed by a home game against BYU (10-2, 25-3) on March 3 and a road game at CSU (6-6, 15-11) on March 6.

Currently in sixth place in the MWC, the Utes could catch CSU which finishes with a more difficult schedule (New Mexico, at TCU, at San Diego State, Utah).

It's unlikely they'll fall below seventh-place TCU (4-8, 12-15) which has the hardest stretch ahead of it (at UNLV, CSU, at New Mexico and BYU).

But whether they are in fifth, sixth or seventh the Utes don't really care at this point where they are.

"We want to win all four games, that would be my goal," Utah coach Jim Boylen said. "But we have to prepare for each one one at a time and Air Force is a difficult opponent. They are playing better basketball, they're healthier and their style makes for a difficult game. Then we come home and play Wyoming and they're a good basketball team and it's right on down the line for us."

Last season the Utes put together an 8-game winning streak stretching from Jan. 27 until they lost at BYU on Feb. 28.

That run was credited with giving the Utes the momentum they needed to win the league tournament.

Such runs have evaded the Utes this season with their longest winning streak lasting three games. Only two other times have they won back-to-back games.

Nevertheless, Boylen believes the Utes can finish strong, starting tonight against the Falcons.

"We've established it and talked about it that it's the time of year where we are playing with a sense of urgency," he said. "We expect that all the time."

While a high seed isn't in the mix for the Utes, finishing as the fifth or sixth-place team might not be all that bad. Likely opponents are either UNLV or San Diego State. The Utes came close to beating the Aztecs in both losses this season and they swept the Rebels. Playing UNLV on its home floor adds more to the challenge, but one the Utes wouldn't mind.

"It's hard to beat a team three times," guard Carlon Brown said. "But we beat TCU three times last year. Beating UNLV on their home floor, we showed them up a bit, but we've grown up as a team too and we'll be Ok as long as we stay straight."

But before they can think about the tournament, the Utes have to take care of business tonight.

"I feel like we've improved over the last month," Boylen said. "We're getting better offensively and we're getting healthier. I like the way my team is progressing. We had a difficult week last week and we know we have big challenges ahead."

lwodraska@sltrib.com

Utah at Air Force

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