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The present, not the past, is the Utes’ concern as they visit longtime nemesis Kentucky

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak shouts to his team, in basketball action in the Beehive Classic, between against the Brigham Young Cougars and Utah Utes, at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, Saturday December 8, 2018.

When he entered the NBA in the mid-1980s, Larry Krystkowiak was eager to visit the Boston Garden and the Forum, homes of the teams that dominated the league in that era: the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

Utah's basketball coach has a similar feeling about taking his team into Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. “That's going to be an unbelievable environment,” Krystkowiak said of Saturday's game at No. 19 Kentucky.

The game is the centerpiece of Krystkowiak’s upgraded 2018-19 schedule, but Utah’s experience in front of about 22,000 fans will be conditional. A good performance could revive the Utes; a blowout loss would knock them down even further. A team that is struggling to sustain any momentum during the nonconference schedule faces the potential of being overwhelmed by a high-scoring opponent, unless Utah plays better offensively and becomes tougher defensively.

Krystkowiak keeps saying the two ends of the court are connected, and he’s convinced that a more efficient, team-oriented offense will help Utah (4-4) stay engaged on defense. He’s hoping Utes will do a better job of sharing the ball, rather than trying to force anything individually. “Maybe I haven’t been as clear as I wanted,” he said. “It’s a fine line between trying to make a play and trying to make a ‘team’ play.”

Something will have to change after the way the Utes played in last Saturday’s 74-59 loss to BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Kentucky may not be the ideal place for a recovery.

Ordinarily, the theme of Saturday’s game would be Utah’s history vs. the Wildcats. Six times, from 1993-2005, Kentucky knocked Utah out of the NCAA Tournament — including a comeback victory in the 1998 championship game.

But the Utes' current issues top any of those haunting memories of the past. Saturday's game is part of a home/neutral package, with the teams meeting next December in Las Vegas. The deal made sense for Kentucky, with the Wildcats already booked to play Ohio State in Las Vegas that week.

Kentucky is staging an anniversary observance for Utah’s visit, a 25-year reunion of the ’93 Final Four team. Those 'Cats beat Utah 83-62 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Nashville, Tenn.

Utah at Kentucky

At Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

Tipoff: Saturday, 3 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN2.

Radio: ESPN 700.  

Records: Utah 4-4; Kentucky 7-2.

Series history: Kentucky leads, 9-2.  

Last meeting: Kentucky 62, Utah 52 (2005)

About the Utes: Utah shot 36.5 percent from the field in last Saturday’s 74-59 loss to BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena. … The Utes are ranked No. 129 in the kenpom.com efficiency analytics after starting the season at No. 71; Kentucky is No. 17. … Utah will play two home games next week, Monday vs. Florida A&M and Friday vs. Northern Arizona.  

About the Wildcats: Kentucky is known for recruiting a revolving group of freshmen who leave for the NBA after one season, but graduate transfer Reid Travis is UK’s No. 2 scorer (14.4). The Utes are familiar with Travis, who played three years for Stanford. … The Wildcats have three other double-figures scorers and average 84.2 points.

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