Associated Press
UCLA coach Ben Howland gestures during the first half of a Southeast regional second-round NCAA tournament college basketball game against Michigan State in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, March 17, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — UCLA coach Ben Howland knows a thing or two about Utah. He has a few connections.

Howland met his wife, Kim, during his playing days at Weber State (1978-80). They visit her family in the Ogden area often. It was their summer vacation destination, in fact, during his lengthy tenure as an assistant to longtime Utah coach Jerry Pimm at UC Santa Barbara.

Howland also developed a great friendship with former Runnin’ Ute coach Rick Majerus over the years.

“I have a lot of history with the University of Utah and the state of Utah,” Howland said. “I love it up there — great people and great fly fishing.”

Howland’s wife and daughter plan to be in the Huntsman Center Thursday when the Bruins (12-3, 2-0) take on the Utes (8-6, 0-2) in Salt Lake City for the first time since 1928.

“I really love Utah and they love basketball in that state,” he said, while making note of the programs at BYU, Utah, Weber State, Utah State and Southern Utah. “It’s a great state for basketball.”

As such, Howland is well aware of what UCLA is getting into up on the hill.

“We’re going to be in a tough environment against a very tough, hard-nosed team that is especially good defensively,” Howland said of facing a Utah team that leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (.354) and ranks second in scoring defense (57.2 ppg).

“They’re a very, very good defensive team. They really make you take jump shots and play out on the perimeter,” said Howland, who noted that the Utes have posed problems for people by switching on ball screens. They’re also physical with good size and quickness.

“We know this is going to be a grind-it-out affair where there’s going to be possessions-by-possessions,” he continued. “It’s going to be a game that’s probably not going to be a high-scoring game and we’ve got to be prepared for that type of game mentally.”

The Bruins come to town as the Pac-12’s top scoring team (79.9 ppg) with the conference’s best shooting percentage (.480). Forward Shabazz Muhammad (19.6 ppg) and guard Jordan Adams (16.6 ppg), both freshmen, are among the league’s leading scorers — ranking second and sixth, respectively.

The contrast in styles headline Utah’s Pac-12 home opener.

“Defensively, we’re doing a really good job,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “Our guys are buying in as individual defenders to try to do their job.”

The team concepts are in place, Krystkowiak explained, and the Utes have run some box-and-1, triangle-and-2 and different zones, thus far, depending on personnel and what type of offense they’re facing.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in practice on defense from the beginning of training camp and even through our trip in Brazil,” Krystkowiak said. “I think our guys are gaining some sense of pride in our ability to guard.”

Although the Utes are buying into the different game plans and have been effective — improving their national ranking in opponent field goal percentage from 321st last season to 22nd this year —Krystkowiak acknowledges that UCLA presents a whole set of challenges.

“We’re going to have our hands full. They’ve got a stable full of thoroughbreds and they’re playing really well together right now,” he said. “ … (Defense) is going to be a big focal point, but I think the animal coming in here Thursday is a little bit different than what we’re used to. So we’re going to have to be that much better.”

Question is, will it be enough to slow UCLA's explosive offense?

“Something’s got to give and we’re going to have to be even better on defense,” said Utah center Jason Washburn. “They’ve got a lot of weapons and they can put up points in bunches if we let them. So we’re going to have to play our best defense.”

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