HONOLULU — Utah may have the better record, but the 7-3 Utes won't be favored when they take on 6-4 Butler tonight in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center (9 p.m. MST, EPSNU).
After their run to the NCAA Finals in April, the Bulldogs became known around the country for their team-oriented, tough-minded play as they came within a whisker of winning the whole thing when Gordon Hayward's halfcourt shot bounced off the iron at the final buzzer against Duke.
This year, Butler is off to a similar start to last year's slow start with three losses to ranked teams. However, the Bulldogs are coming off their best game of the season, an 83-50 thrashing of Stanford on Saturday.
"The thing that strikes me the most about this team is their strength and toughness and the way they play as a team," said Utah coach Jim Boylen. "Their pieces fit well and they're a veteran team who's been through some battles together."
Fans who watched the Bulldogs in their magical run to the Final Four, which included a pair of upset wins in Salt Lake City, will remember several players from last year's team.
Three starters are back, including forward Matt Howard, guard Shelvin Mack and guard Ronald Nored.
Howard has taken over for departed Hayward, who decided to turn pro after last year's outstanding sophomore season and ended up with the Utah Jazz.
"Thank goodness he's in Utah," Boylen said about Hayward. But the Utes have plenty to be worried about with Howard, whose numbers are surpassing Hayward's of last year.
Howard leads the Bulldogs in both scoring (17.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.1 rpg) and has been on a tear the past few games. In Butler's last three games, he is shooting 63.6 percent from the field (21-of-33) and 96 percent from the foul line (24-of-25). He is also shooting 56 percent from 3-point range on the year and has made his last eight treys.
Mack, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound guard, is averaging just under 15 points a game, while Nored struggled in the early going, but has averaged seven points the past three games.
The Utes are feeling pretty good about themselves, coming into the game with a 7-3 record and a gutsy come-from-behind win over Boise State last Friday night.
Will Clyburn has been the Utes' top player all season and leads the team in scoring (19.5 ppg), rebounding (8.6 rpg) and steals (1.9 spg). Chris Hines is coming off a career-high 13 points against Boise State, while forward Shawn Glover is coming off his best game of the year with 12 points and nine rebounds against Boise.
Josh Watkins is averaging 14.8 points and 3.7 assists per game, while Jason Washburn (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) will start in the middle, with David Foster seeing a lot of minutes.
Senior Jay Watkins sat out the Boise State game with a sore back, and the Utes hope he'll be able to play this week. The Utes may also get freshman J.J. O'Brien, who has missed nine games, back this week.
The winner of tonight's game will play the winner of Wednesday's nightcap between Florida State (9-2) and Hawaii (7-2) on Thursday at 5 p.m. MST. The losers play at 7:30 p.m. MST.
The other two games today pit Washington State (8-1) against Mississippi State (7-3) and No. 15 Baylor (7-1) against San Diego (2-8).
TOURNEY NOTES: The Utes arrived Monday afternoon and had dinner at Waikiki. On Tuesday, they practiced at the Sheriff Center and attended a welcome dinner with the other tournament teams at the Sheraton Hotel. … It's been rainy off and on, but temperatures are between 70 and 80. … Utah and Butler have met just once before, clear back in 1964 when the Utes won 95-66 in Salt Lake. … Because regular play-by-play man Bill Riley is covering the Las Vegas Bowl, Salt Lake Bees announcer Steve Klauke will handle play-by-play duties for the three tournament games. … The Utes have never won an eight-team bracketed early-season tournament. … Butler won the Great Alaska Shootout in 2007. ... Butler is one of just three teams in the country that has won at least 25 games the past four seasons.
Utes on the air
Utah vs. Butler
Today, 9 p.m. at Honolulu
Radio: 700 AM