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Utah basketball: Utes face tough test in No. 1 Arizona

Published January 25, 2014 8:53 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tucson, Ariz. • It can be difficult replacing a coaching legend.

Utah fans know this all too well, as both Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen largely flopped on the hill attempting to fill the ample shoes of Rick Majerus. Larry Krystkowiak appears to be a big step in the right direction, but in year three he's still trying to get his program to the top of the Pac-12.

All of which brings us to Arizona. When the Utes and the Wildcats face off on Sunday evening, Krystkowiak will take the court against the No. 1 team in the nation. Arizona's a team that many have pegged for the Final Four. A national title — which would be the first since 1997 — isn't of the question.

"It's a program anyone would want to emulate for sure," Krystkowiak said.

A few years ago, however, the Wildcats were almost in the same boat as Utah. They weren't 6-25 bad, like the Utes were in 2012. But following the retirement of Lute Olsen — who made Arizona the best program in the West during the better part of three decades — the Wildcats struggled with Kevin O'Neill, internal strife and mediocre records.

Then they hired Sean Miller away from Xavier.

Miller is a former Big East point guard at Pitt and was a ball-handling wizard even as a child. He once appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, showcasing his skills. At 14, he appeared in the movie "A Fish that Saved Pittsburgh" with Julius Erving, one of the best players in NBA history.

He's been just as good as a coach, restoring past history with the Wildcats, and then some. Arizona could be the most athletic team in the country. The Wildcats are certainly one of the best defensive teams out there. They are 19-0 on the season, a near lock to be the No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed out west, and a threat to go unbeaten in the Pac-12.

That is what Utah will face on Sunday, walking into the McKale Center.

"It's a great feeling to be the top team in the nation," Miller said. "It's awesome. We try to always come in to a game ready to play. We embrace it, but we try not to get caught up in it at the same time. We are nowhere near the finish line. There's a lot of basketball to be played. We have to continue to win and continue to get better, if we want to continue to be number one."

So how do the Utes cope, when they are coming off a difficult defeat at Arizona State, and haven't won on the road all season? They simply play, sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge said.

This is easily the most visible game on a national scale for a young Utah team this season. The Utes are 14-5 on the year, 3-4 in the Pac-12 and looking for that elusive first win away from the Huntsman Center. The odds of them accomplishing this on Sunday are heavily against them. Although they haven't beaten Arizona yet in the Pac-12, Utah has played the Wildcats well in the past two seasons. Heck, the Utes even had the ball with a chance to win last year, before coming up short.

"They don't have many weaknesses," Loveridge said. "They have great players everywhere, they have a great bench. They play great defense, they turn you over and they like to get out and run. We have to pretty much go in there and compete. We feel like if we finish on defense and offense, we will have the chance to compete."

tjones@sltrib.com

Utah at No. 1 Arizona

O At the McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz.

Tipoff • Sunday, 6 p.m.

TV • Fox Sports 1

Radio • 700 AM

Records • Arizona 19-0 (6-0), Utah 14-5 (3-4)

Series history • Utah leads 28-25

Last meeting • Arizona 68, Utah 64 (Feb. 17, 2013)

About the Utes • Utah has lost four straight games on the road this season. … Utah hasn't beaten Arizona since the 1998 NCAA Tournament. … Utah hasn't won in Tucson since 1986. … The Utes are third nationally, shooting 51 percent from the field. … Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright combined to score 43 points in the loss to Arizona State

About the Wildcats • Arizona Is 69-11 all-time at the McKale Center under Sean Miller. … T.J. McConnell leads the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio. … This is the best start for Arizona since the 2002-2003 season. … UA has had at least four double-digit scorers in 13 of its last 19 games. … Aaron Gordon is the leading candidate for Pac-12 newcomer of the year