SALT LAKE CITY — Utah and Kentucky have crossed paths just 11 times over the years. Saturday’s meeting at Rupp Arena in Lexington (3 p.m., ESPN2) will be the first game between the Utes and Wildcats since 2005.
Despite the passing of time, the series remains in memory yet green for many. The teams have quite a history. In 1998, they played for the national championship. Kentucky prevailed 78-69 despite Utah holding a 10-point halftime lead. It marked one of six times over a 12-year span (including three straight beginning in 1996) that the Wildcats defeated the Utes in the NCAA Tournament. Players like Josh Grant, Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller, Michael Doleac and Andrew Bogut were among the Utah standouts on teams knocked out of the Big Dance by Kentucky.
The Utes, though, were the guys celebrating in 1947. That’s when Arnie Ferrin and Vern Gardner led Utah to a 49-45 win over Kentucky in the NIT finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City — then considered the most prestigious college basketball tournament.
Utah’s only other victory in the 11 games against Kentucky came in 1976. Jeff Judkins scored 24 points as the Utes edged the Wildcats 70-68 in Lexington. It came in the championship game of the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament. Since then, it’s been all Kentucky. The Wildcats have seven straight wins over the Utes.
The 42-year drought was brought to Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s attention earlier this week and he’s not putting a lot of emphasis on it. Krystkowiak noted that he means no disrespect to the past. He loves the tradition and seeing photos from the Final Four, as well as knowing all the history. The past has always been an important part of the Utah program since Krystkowiak took over in 2011.
That said, he explained that it has nothing to do with the upcoming game.
“It’s a whole different category and we’ve got far bigger fish to fry and issues to deal with than any past history,” said Krystkowiak, who recalled being in attendance at the 1998 Final Four. “It’s pretty cool there’s been some neat matchups ... It’s not like it’s new to me or unknown to me. It’s just we just have so much time to talk about some things and it’s the stuff that we can control.”
A 4-4 start to the season has Utah looking for answers before Pac-12 play begins in January. Facing 19th-ranked Kentucky (7-2) on the road may be an extremely tall task. Krystkowiak noted that the Wildcats are a high-powered squad with a great post presence and a team that rebounds well and is crazy in transition. They’ve also shot twice as many free throws than their opposition.
“So this one may be a little bit less about the Xs and Os and a little bit more about the Jimmys and Joes in terms of understanding personnel,” said Krystkowiak, who emphasized that Kentucky is an opportunistic-minded team that will put the heat on you and the Utes have got to be ready.
Then there’s the environment. Krystkowiak acknowledged it’s something they’ve talked about. He referred to Rupp Arena as “one of the bluebloods” in leading the nation in attendance, referring to the atmosphere as unbelievable.
“So we’re kind of curious about peeking around,” said Krystkowiak, who took his team to Kentucky on Thursday. “So we’ll have a little bit of time to check out Rupp and Lexington.”
Senior guard Parker Van Dyke, a team captain, said he was eager to make the trip.
“It’s definitely fun and it’s really exciting, kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s similar to being able to play at Madison Square Garden like last year and some other great places we’ve played at,” Van Dyke said. "So not only is it great to play at Kentucky, but being able to play at Rupp Arena in Lexington will be a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Even so, it’s still a business trip. Van Dyke explained that the first priority is to win.
“You’re there to play well and to execute a game plan as best as you can,” he said. “But also you want to try, I think, to soak in the experience, enjoy it.”
Van Dyke thinks the latter is a good message for the team — remember that basketball is a game.
“It’s supposed to be fun and it’s the most fun when we’re doing our best and executing the game plan and stuff,” he said. “I think if we just remember that’s the first priority we’ll be all right.”8 comments on this story
Utah’s history with Kentucky is another variable. Van Dyke recalls Bogut and the Utes falling to Rajon Rondo and Kentucky in the 2005 NCAA Sweet 16. He also remembers the 1998 title game.
“So I guess there's somewhat of a little rivalry between us with the past,” Van Dyke said. “We haven’t played them in years, but, yeah, why not have an extra edge going into this game and try to avenge some of the losses we’ve had in the past.”
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Utes on the air
at No. 19 Kentucky (7-2)
Rupp Arena — Lexington, Ky.
Saturday, 3 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM