Utah Utes wanted to play Kentucky at home, but will settle for Las Vegas

Kentucky coach John Calipari urges his team on during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Evansville in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Evansville won 67-64. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Weber State guard Judah Jordan, left, defends against Utah forward Mikael Jantunen (20) in the second half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The University of Kentucky is not in the business of going out of its way.

Coach John Calipari’s program, one of the sport’s genuine blue bloods and an annual threat to win the national championship, rarely leaves Lexington prior to New Year’s. In November and December, the Wildcats will play a host of nonconference games at home.

Any instance in which Kentucky steps outside Rupp Arena, it is for something significant. The Champions Classic, which includes Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. The CBS Sports Classic, which includes Ohio State, UCLA and North Carolina. An annual in-state war against Louisville. A high-profile, neutral-site one-off in some years.

Aside from the Cardinals, the Wildcats have not played a true nonconference road game since 2015 when it played at UCLA and lost.

Take Wednesday night for example. Kentucky and Utah will play at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the Neon Hoops Showcase (9 p.m., ESPN2), which will benefit Coaches vs. Cancer. This is the back end of a two-year agreement, which saw the Utes fall at Rupp last season, 88-61.

Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said last week they kicked the tires on trying to get Kentucky to the Huntsman Center this season, but he knew better. If Utah wanted to play Kentucky on this side of the country, it was going to have to be a higher-profile situation than Salt Lake City.

“In regards to Kentucky, they’re not going to play you in the Huntsman Center,” Krystkowiak said. “They don’t play anybody other than Kansas or Duke in one of those things. They don’t put themselves at a high risk to lose a road game. That’s an opportunity. A few years back [in 2015], we played Duke at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s a good test. Vegas, we’re certainly going to have plenty of Kentucky fans. I’m not sure we’re going to know it’s a neutral-site game, but that’s what we sign up for. We’ve talked about that. As a coaching staff and players, you want an opportunity. I know you can’t beat Kentucky on a neutral-site court if you don’t play them, and those are some things that have proven important to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, so we’ll see where we are.”

Utes assistant coach Andy Hill, who handles the nonconference schedule each season, echoed Krystkowiak’s take.

“First off, you’d like to try and get a home-and-home, but they don’t really do that,” Hill said. “Our fanbase wanted some bigger-name games, so the best we could do was get them as close as possible and that was Vegas. I feel like throughout the years, if you look at the Pac-12 Tournament and other stuff, we’ve been able to get a good fan showing in Vegas. That was as close as we could get them.”

Wednesday will be Utah’s second of three straight neutral-site games to close its nonconference schedule. When the Utes finish their nonconference schedule on Saturday against unbeaten, 20th-ranked San Diego State as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, they will have played six neutral-site games.

Playing that many neutral-site games in a season has become the norm across the country, if not preferable, mostly because multi-team events have become a key scheduling tool. For scheduling purposes, an MTE counts as one game, but an eight-team event, like the Myrtle Beach Invitational Utah played in last month, provides three games.

This is where Utah’s scheduling philosophy has come and there are no signs of changing. A mix of guarantee games at the Huntsman Center (i.e. Mississippi Valley State, UC Davis, Central Arkansas), home-and-homes (i.e. Minnesota, Nevada), an MTE and, if a sensible opportunity presents itself, a neutral-court game or two.

“Obviously, you try and get some good home-and-homes,” Hill said. “The Minnesota game, that was a home-and-home. We got BYU back here, so you try to figure that out, and then you’ve got your guarantee games, which are part of it and not easy. They’re a challenge to get between finances and dates, and RPI-type stuff.”

For 2020-21, Utah is booked for one of the highest-profile MTEs on the calendar, Battle 4 Atlantis, which will take place over Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas. Per Hill, the only other matchup that is set right now is a return trip to Missouri after the Tigers played at the Huntsman Center in 2017.

For what it’s worth, Hill will have two less nonconference holes to fill next season with the Pac-12 moving to a 20-game schedule.


At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

Tipoff: Wednesday, 9 p.m. MST


Radio: ESPN 700.

Records: Utah, 8-2; Kentucky, 8-1

Series history: Kentucky leads, 10-2.

Last meeting: Kentucky, 88-61 (2018)

About the Utes: Utah has won four straight games and eight of 10 to start the season after a 60-49 win over Weber State at the Beehive Classic on Saturday. … Freshman point guard Rylan Jones (ribs) returned to practice on Tuesday, but only did some running. His official status for Wednesday is unknown. … The Utes are 66-144 all-time against AP Top-25 teams, including 18-50 on neutral courts. Utah’s last win over a top-10 team came on Feb. 27, 2016, a 70-64 win over No. 9 Arizona at the Huntsman Center. … Wednesday will be Utah’s fifth neutral-court game this season, following three at the Myrtle Beach Invitational and the Weber State game, which was played at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

About the Wildcats: Kentucky has won six straight games since an uncharacteristic November home loss to Evansville. … Wednesday will mark just the second time this season the Wildcats have played away from Rupp Arena, the other being vs. then-No. 1 Michigan State at the Champions Classic on Nov. 5. … Two Kentucky players — No. 8 Tyrese Maxey and No. 24 Kahlil Whitney — are slotted as 2020 first-round NBA draft picks by authoritative ESPN draft writer Jonathan Givony. … Kentucky will be in Las Vegas for a two-game swing. After Utah, the Wildcats will face No. 5 Ohio State on Saturday as part of the CBS Sports Classic back at T-Mobile Arena. … Kentucky is 7-1 all-time against Utah on neutral floors.