SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah basketball team officially begins Pac-12 play next week with games at Arizona State and Arizona, but as far as Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak is concerned, it “kind of” begins Saturday when the Utes take on No. 6-ranked Nevada in a noon game at the Huntsman Center.
“In my mind, league play is kind of starting, with the quality of competition in this one and then Arizona State,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”
Indeed. Nevada is one of just five teams out of 353 Division I teams that still has an unbeaten record at this point of the season, which might be surprising to many.
When you think of national collegiate powers in Nevada, you naturally think of UNLV, which was a top collegiate program back in the 1980s and ’90s under coach Jerry Tarkanian. This year, you have to look north to Reno where Nevada has assembled a powerful team that many are predicting could make a run to the Final Four.
Under fourth-year coach Eric Musselman, who coached in the NBA at Golden State and Sacramento in the early 2000s, the Wolf Pack has assembled a group of players that is off to a 12-0 record this season with victories over Pac-12 schools Arizona State and USC. The Wolf Pack won regular-season titles in the Mountain West the past two seasons and made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament last year.
Most of the top players are transfers, led by Jordan Caroline (18.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg), a 6-foot-7 forward from Southern Illinois, and the Martin twins, Caleb and Cody, both 6-7, who transferred from North Carolina State. Caleb is known for his offense (18.8 ppg), while Cody is a defensive specialist who averaged 10.1 points per game.
Another top player is Jazz Johnson, a 5-10 transfer from Portland, who averages 12.0 points per game. Forward Tre’Shawn Thurman (Omaha) averages 8.4 ppg, while forward Trey Porter (Old Dominion) averages 6.8 ppg.
“When you look down their roster, they have an awful lot of transfer guys. (Musselman) does a good job of blending personalities and talent,” said Krystkowiak. “The Martin kids are the head of the snake, Caroline is as good a player as there is in the country, and they have a lot of pieces around them that would lead you to believe they have a chance to be a Final Four team with a bunch of experience on top of that.”
As for the 6-5 Utes, they’ll be trying to keep up the momentum of their two pre-Christmas victories over lesser opponents Florida A&M and Northern Arizona.
Krystkowiak said he’s happy with his new starting lineup that includes senior Parker Van Dyke and freshman Both Gach on the guard line, along with junior center Jayce Johnson and freshmen Riley Battin and Timmy Allen. The team’s two top scorers, senior guard Sedric Barefield (13.4 ppg) and sophomore forward Donnie Tillman (9.7 ppg), will come off the bench for the third straight game.
“We’re making progress,” Krystkowiak said. “We’ve got to just be dialed in and start making some plays.”
As for playing a highly ranked team, it’s not like a Ute team hasn’t done that before at the Huntsman Center.
Perhaps the most famous was No. 2 Wake Forest with Tim Duncan back in 1996 going up against a Keith Van Horn-led Utes team that was ranked No. 7. The highest-ranked opponent was No. 1 Alabama, which Utah defeated 51-49 in 2002.
Other recent high-ranked Ute opponents include Arizona in 2014 (67-63 OT loss) and UCLA in 2017 (83-82 loss).2 comments on this story
UTE NOTES: This marks the 11th meeting between Utah and Nevada, with the Utes winning all 10 previous games. The most recent game was 1987 when Utah won 83-75. … The Utes open Pac-12 play Thursday night at No. 17 Arizona State before playing Arizona at noon on Saturday. The first league home games will be the following Thursday and Saturday against Washington and Washington State, respectively. … If the Utes lose Saturday, it would mark the first time since Krystkowiak’s first season in 2011-12 that they wouldn’t have a winning record going into league play.