SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in more than 11 years, the Utah Utes will host a team in the top five of the Associated Press poll. They take on fourth-ranked Arizona Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.
“It’s pretty dang cool to have an opportunity like this. I can only hope that the crowd is excited about it,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It’s part of being a member of this league and Arizona’s had a heck of a year.”
If it weren’t for a couple of close losses, he added, the Wildcats (23-2, 10-2) would be the No. 1 team in the rankings.
“Any time you’re in the category where you’re a top-five team, I think it’s a fun product for basketball fans, which we have here in Utah, to come and watch,” Krystkowiak said. “ ... I’m a little more nervous than I am excited, but it’s kind of what we all signed up for.”
Life in the Pac-12 has proved to be an assembly line of challenges. Arizona ushers in a regular-season-ending schedule for Utah (17-8, 6-7) that features other projected NCAA tournament teams in Arizona State, Colorado, California and Stanford.
“All we’re really thinking about is finishing strong — looking to the next game,” said Utah junior center Dallin Bachynski. “We haven’t talked about Arizona State or Colorado or California or Stanford at all.”
It’s a one-game-at-a-time approach. The Utes plan to deal with the task at hand and then move forward.
“We’ve got our hands full in each game,” said Krystkowiak, who acknowledged that any victory ends up being a pretty powerful win at this point of the season — with postseason ramifications on the line. “The most important thing for us is we start playing our best basketball at the right time of year and if we can string something together positive then it’s something that a committee has to take into account.”
Really, though, Krystkowiak noted that it’s more about focusing on the thing the Utes can control and that’s just trying to get better each day. After suffering their first double-digit loss of the season last Saturday at UCLA (80-66), they’re eager to bounce back.
“I don’t have any questions at all. This is a pretty darn resilient group. Every time we’ve had a little bump in the road they’ve responded,” Krystkowiak said. “They did that at practice yesterday, coming right back. You can tell it hurts.”
Bachynski confirmed that the team is determined to bounce back from the setback in Los Angeles.
“It’s frustrating to have that kind of loss, especially at this point of the year,” he said. “But at least we got a bad loss out of our system.”
Returning home, where a large and vocal crowd is expected, should aid in the boost. So, too, is the opportunity to play one of college basketball’s elite teams at home. Utah hasn’t hosted a top-five team since upsetting No. 1 Alabama, 51-49, on Dec. 24, 2002.
“It’ll be fun. I’m sure we’ll have a good atmosphere and it’s just not every day you get to prepare for and play a top-five team,” said sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge. “So I know it’ll be a tough challenge. But it’ll be real fun for us.”
Teammate Delon Wright added that the Utes are real excited and looking forward to playing the Wildcats in the Huntsman Center.
Since 1963, Utah is 5-2 against top-five opponents in Salt Lake City.
EXTRA STUFF: Arizona is the only team Utah hasn’t beaten since the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12. They’re 0-5 against the Wildcats over that span. ... Arizona defeated Utah 65-56 in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 26. ... Former Utah star Billy “The Hill” McGill will be honored at halftime. McGill, who is being inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor next month, will also be signing his autobiography before the game from 6-8 p.m. in the Huntsman Center lounge.
Utah vs. top-five opponents in Salt Lake City
Feb. 15, 1963 — Lost to No. 5 Arizona State, 83-78
Jan. 1, 1964 — Defeated No. 4 Cincinnati, 76-68
Feb. 17, 1968 — Defeated No. 5 New Mexico, 71-64
Dec. 7, 1976 — Defeated No. 5 UNLV, 100-96
Feb. 23, 1978 — Defeated No. 5 New Mexico, 95-92
Dec. 31, 1996 — Lost to No. 2 Wake Forest, 70-59
Dec. 24, 2002 — Defeated No. 1 Alabama, 51-49
No. 4 Arizona (23-2, 10-2) at Utah (17-8, 6-7)
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