SALT LAKE CITY — There’s something special about Utah’s opponent Thursday night in the Huntsman Center. Iconic UCLA, winner of a record 11 NCAA championships, is making its first Pac-12 visit.
“I know our fans are excited about it. Last year, obviously, UCLA didn’t come here. I know a lot of fans were disappointed in that because it’s UCLA. It doesn’t get much bigger in college basketball than the name UCLA,” said Utah center Jason Washburn. “We’re real excited. They’ve got a real solid team and a lot of talented players on that squad. We’re going to have to try to stop a lot of weapons. We’re going to have to play really good basketball.”
The Bruins (12-3, 2-0) come to town with seven straight wins. Even so, Washburn noted that the Utes (8-6, 0-2) are looking forward to playing them.
“We’re excited for the opportunity and we’re excited to have them come in here,” he said. “And we’re going to try to get our first Pac-12 win.”
Although UCLA has played in the Huntsman (formerly Special Events) Center four times over the years, the Bruins have never faced the Utes. All of their previous appearances up on the hill came in NCAA Tournament play. They defeated BYU and Long Beach State in 1971, and beat Central Michigan in 1987 before losing to Wyoming.
And now, for the first time since 1928, UCLA is in Salt Lake City to play Utah — something that will become a common occurrence with both teams residing in the same conference. The Bruins and Utes played in Los Angeles last season.
“It’s exciting. It kind of just re-emphasizes the type of teams we play,” said Utah athletics director Chris Hill. “They come to our place and we go to their place and that’s how it is.”
Like Hill, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak acknowledged there’s a buzz surrounding UCLA’s visit.
“It’s fun to have the opportunity to play one of the most storied programs in college basketball in a place that has as much basketball tradition as Utah does. It’s exciting,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s like when we played USC in football. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little extra burst of adrenaline knowing one of the best football programs was coming into town. So from a fan perspective I think it can be an exciting night. Hopefully we can put some people in the stands and we’re trying to get our guys ready to play in front of that stage.”
Krystkowiak added that the margin of error is going to be slim. The Utes, he said, must be ready to compete and make plays so that “hopefully people will have something to cheer about.”
The Utes are looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s amazing,” said freshman Jordan Loveridge. “It’s an amazing opportunity and it’s going to be a fun game.”
Senior Jarred DuBois agreed that there are a lot of people eagerly awaiting UCLA’s visit.
“They’re definitely a big-time program and it's going to be exciting — not only for me but the community to get a team like that in here,” he said.
As the game approached, the significance of it was something Krystkowiak thought about. When it comes to a winning tradition, UCLA is tough to top.
“Those four letters on the jerseys and uniforms mean quite a bit. I think everybody knows that with the success that they’ve had. They’ve got a lot of great pieces to the puzzle right now, a bunch of great players that I see being NBA players — three or four on the floor for sure that are going to be playing a lot more than their college careers,” Krystkowiak said. “So it’s a great challenge for us and I think our players should soak up the environment a little bit. When we recruited them and talked to them that was why we were in part of these kids’ doors, so they can play at an elite level.
“All I would say now is sometimes you better be careful what you wish for because it's coming to town Thursday,” he continued. ”I know it’s an exciting time for some of the fans and the people. This is a really proud basketball area, too, and to have an opportunity to play against a program like (UCLA) I’m hoping that some people might want to come out, want to witness it and be a part of it.”