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Climbing in the national rankings is a positive sign, Larry Krystkowiak agrees. Rankings help excite fanbases and sell tickets. They draw recruits' attention. They bring media spotlight.

Ranked at No. 10 this week, the Runnin' Utes welcome these particular benefits. But Krystkowiak keeps a list in his mind — and Utah hasn't arrived in that particular top 10.

Not yet.

"I don't believe we're a top 10 team," he said. "I think there's a lot more than nine teams that could kick our butt right now."

Utah's players and coaches have consistently referred to the non-conference schedule as the "preseason" this year. It doesn't mean that wins over Wichita State and BYU are meaningless, but it serves as a reminder to wipe the slate clean. Pac-12 play is where Utah wants to make its true case as a college basketball heavyweight.

That journey starts Friday night at the Huntsman Center, when USC comes to town. The Utes were picked as the No. 2 team in the conference before the year, and they think they can still surpass that pick.

Krystkowiak wasn't as modest when a reporter asked him Tuesday morning if he thought Utah was capable of making a league title run: "Well, heck yeah."

"I'll put our name in the hat, as I would a lot of teams," he said. "Anyone can get on a run, take care of their home court and win a few games on the road can put themselves in that conversation."

Utah's squarely in it before league play begins.

The Utes' statistical profile paints it as a strong unit on both sides of the ball, tied for No. 19 in points per possession (1.12) and No. 16 in points allowed per possession (0.85). They rank among the conference's top 3 in shooting percentage, shooting percentage defense, rebounding margin, scoring, scoring defense, 3-point percentage and blocks.

Senior guard Delon Wright is drawing attention as a potential All American, and Utah has beaten the Shockers, the Cougars, UNLV and come close against Kansas all without the services of Jordan Loveridge — who is just now getting healthy.

If there ever has been a time to make a real run at Arizona, the perennial Pac-12 favorite, it's now. The team recognizes that.

"I'm excited," Jakob Poeltl said. "I'm excited about the challenge, about a lot of games in a pretty short time. It's gonna be tough but I'm looking forward to it."

Still, Utah knows this is no cakewalk. Players have been drilled with the idea that the top -10 ranking, the program's first since 1999, is an artificial confidence boost, and that it could even hurt them.

"We're not believing too much into the top-10 thing," Wright said. "We've been talking about how with that kind of stuff, we can get defeated easily."

The opening weekend will be a litmus test for how Utah handles the increasing stakes, but also how they handle familiar opponents. This home stand, featuring USC and UCLA, was one that Utah swept last year, helping announce their arrival as a team to be taken seriously.

However, this time the Utes are the favorites. They'll be dealing with a pair of teams that run fast, can penetrate and have very good athletes at most positions. It's certainly no Carroll College, Krystkowiak reminded his players on Tuesday night.

"I reminded our guys tonight this is Season 1A," he said. "We've got the big one coming up with 18 starting Friday. We're going to have to play a heck of a lot better. We've asked our guys to make a commitment to do that."

Twitter: @kylegoon -

USC at No. 10 Utah

O Jon M. Huntsman Center

Tip-off • 8 p.m.


Radio • ESPN 700

Records • USC (8-4); Utah (10-2)

Series history • Tied at 17-17

Last meeting • Feb. 13, 2014 at USC; Utah 79, USC 71

About the Trojans • Freshman Jordan McLaughlin is stuffing the stat sheets, checking in the Pac-12 rankings at No. 5 in assists, No. 7 steals and No. 7 in assist-to-turnover ratio. … Elijah Stewart was a Pac-12 player of the week in December after going 10 for 10 from the field for 22 points against Boston College.

About the Utes • Utah is ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for the first time since the end of the 1998-99 season when it finished No. 6. … Utah is undefeated at home this year, and has a 26-2 record at home over the past two seasons. … The Utes are ranked No. 12 nationally in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by an average of 19.2 points.