New York • The Utes may be the highest remaining seed of the four teams that made it to New York, but they’re up against a team of giant slayers.
Utah (22-11) takes on a Western Kentucky squad that has compiled an impressive resume despite having fewer than 10 eligible players. The teams will meet in the first of two NIT semifinals on Tuesday at 5 p.m. MDT in Madison Square Garden.
The Hilltoppers (27-10) didn’t even have eight scholarship players eligible to play until the third week of January, but that didn’t stop them from defeating Big Ten regular-season runner-up Purdue. Purdue went on to Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re a great team,” senior point guard Justin Bibbins said. “They have great wins. I mean, they beat USC and Oklahoma State. It’s more of a personnel game than their sets. They have a lot of players that can flat-out play, so it’s going to be [about] guarding them and figuring out one-on-one who is better.”
The Hilltoppers dropped a game to eventual Big East champion and NCAA Final Four participant Villanova by eight points in November, and they lost a one-point game to in the Conference USA Tournament championship game to Marshall. During their NIT run, the Hilltoppers won games against Power 5 Conference members Boston College, USC, Oklahoma State — the wins against USC and Oklahoma State having come on the road.
They’ve got a rugged forward in 6-foot-7, 245-pound Justin Johnson, who leads them in scoring and rebounding. Utes senior forward Tyler Rawson compared Johnson, who went into the team’s foreign tour this summer with a knee injury suffered in spring football practice, to Stanford’s statuesque all-conference big man Reid Travis.
The free-throw line figures to tell a large chunk of the story Tuesday night. The Hilltoppers enter this week having attempted the fifth-most free throws (855 in 37 games) of any team in NCAA Division I. While the Utes have not taken as many foul shots (623 in 33 games), they’ve shot 76 percent from the line.
“This game, it’s going to be a lot more about a team effort of staying in gaps, taking away their driving lanes,” Rawson said. “Then when they do drive, it’s not putting hands on them or doing a stupid contest at the rim. It’s all about trying to wall up and just be solid defensively.”
The fact that the Hilltoppers shot 330 more free throws than their opponents was something that jumped out at Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak when he looked at their statistics. Two of their top players — Darius Thompson (Virginia) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas) — were graduate transfers from Power 5 conferences.
Krystkowiak compared the Hilltoppers to Oregon in terms of their talent and individual players’ ability to make plays and get to the line off of isolation and penetration.
“They’re probably more of a slashing, driving-minded team than a 3-point shooting team,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s a little bit unique. They don’t score a lot of points from 3, which is maybe the complete opposite of playing Saint Mary’s. So that could pose a challenge for us — to realize that guys want to put it on the floor.”
UTAH VS. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Tipoff • Tuesday, 5 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 22-11, Western Kentucky 27-10
Series history • First meeting.
About the Hilltoppers • Western Kentucky advanced with a 92-84 win at Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals. Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth scored a game-high 30 points in that game to lead five WKU players with 10 points or more. … Forward Justin Johnson earned a spot on the All-Conference USA First Team this season. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound senior enters this week having averaged team highs in points (15.4 points per game) and rebounds (9.4 rpg). … Senior guard Darius Thompson, a graduate transfer from Virginia, earned a spot on the NABC all-district second team. Thompson has averaged 13.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field.
About the Utes • The Utes enter the NIT semifinals coming off of a 67-58 overtime win at Saint Mary’s to become just the second team this season to defeat the Gaels on their home court. Junior guard Sedrick Barefield scored nine of his team-high 19 points in overtime. … Senior point guard and graduate transfer Justin Bibbins enters this week having averaged a team-high 14.7 points per game while also having dished out 4.7 assists per game. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection, Bibbins has made 44.3 percent of his shots from 3-point range. … Senior forward Tyler Rawson leads the team in rebounding (6.9 per game), blocks (TOTAL) and ranks among the team leaders in points (fourth, 10.8 ppg), assists (second, 3.8 per game) and 3-point accuracy (37.6 percent).