MORAGA, Calif. — While it will be the first postseason tournament for the players Tuesday night, at least it won’t be a totally new experience for the Utah basketball team when it plays Saint Mary’s in a first-round NIT game at McKeon Pavilion (9 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).
The Utes practiced at the Saint Mary’s facility just two weeks ago, prior to their game with Cal on March 5, so they know they’ll be playing in a place that more resembles their old high school gyms than the large arenas they’re used to playing in.
“They’ve got a nice gym and we actually got the chance to practice there when we were in the Bay Area,’’ said Ute center Jeremy Olsen. “It’s not a big size, but it can get loud when they pack it, so it will be a good experience.’’
Coach Larry Krystkowiak is glad his team has at least seen the place it will be playing Tuesday night, but he's more concerned about how his Utes perform on any court, coming off their 32-point loss to Arizona last week in the Pac-12 tournament.
“Our guys responded well in practice yesterday and they have all year, so I don’t believe there’s going to be any ill effects,’’ he said. “Shame on us if there’s any sort of carryover from that game.’’
Krystkowiak acknowledged there was some disappointment at getting a No. 5 seed for the NIT, which meant the Utes couldn’t host one more game before the Huntsman Center undergoes some renovation.
“I certainly would have loved to have an opportunity to play at home,’’ he said. “I felt like we were deserving to host a first-round game, but there’s nothing we can do about it at this point. It’s time to move on.’’
With Saint Mary’s, the Utes are playing a team that finished fourth in the West Coast Athletic Conference and lost twice to BYU, a team Utah beat by 17. The Gaels are led by junior center Brad Waldow, who averages 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and senior point guard Stephen Holt, who averages 14.9 ppg and 4.0 assists per game.
The other three starters average just under 10 points per game — guard James Walker III (9.5 ppg), guard Kerry Carter (9.5 ppg) and forward Beau Levesque (9.4 ppg).
“It’s kind of a three-pronged approach,’’ said Krystkowiak. “Holt’s a really good point guard, gets a lot of things done, Waldow’s a great post player and they surround him with a lot of good shooters. That’s kind of a Saint Mary’s blueprint.’’
LAST TIME: The Utes played at Saint Mary’s once before, on Jan. 7, 2002, when they eked out a 41-35 victory in Randy Bennett’s first year as Gaels coach. At the time it was Utah’s lowest point total of the shot clock era.
It was an ugly game that featured more turnovers than baskets and caused Ute coach Rick Majerus to say after the game, “There were probably 100 college games played tonight and 99 might have been played with better rhythm and artistry.’’
The game also was notable because starting point guard Travis Spivey had been suspended the day before because of an apparent verbal altercation with Majerus and it was also the trip where Majerus made some comments to center Lance Allred that later got him in trouble.
The Utes are 14-2 all-time against Saint Mary’s with their last win coming in 2003 by a 65-59 margin in Salt Lake City.
WHAT’S NEXT? — With a win over Saint Mary’s, the Utes could be playing their second-round game as early as Thursday night and as late as Monday night. It would most likely be against Minnesota, the No. 1 seed in Utah’s region.
If High Point upsets the Gophers, Utah would have the right to host the next game as the better seed but wouldn’t be able to, since the Huntsman Center renovation will already be underway. Instead, the Utes would head to North Carolina.
When asked what a long run in the NIT would mean to his program, Krystkowiak wouldn’t play along, saying he didn’t want to think about anything past halftime of his game with the Gaels. However he did offer this:
“I think history has shown that when you have success in a postseason tournament it always helps for next year, especially when you have just one senior on your team,’’ he said. “But that’s putting the cart before the horse in my opinion.’’
UTE NOTES: This marks Utah’s 11th appearance in the postseason NIT Tournament and first since 2001. The Utes won the tournament in 1947 and finished second in 1974 and were third in 1992 when they made it to New York. Since then, they played in it once, in 2001, when the Utes dropped a home game 71-62 to a Memphis team coached by John Calipari. McKeon Pavilion will also soon be undergoing a renovation. A $13 million project will get under way in the spring of 2015 and will include 500 more seats, new video boards, private suites, among other improvements. Other teams in the Utes’ NIT bracket are Missouri (2), Southern Miss (3), Toledo (6) and Davidson (8).