Las Vegas • On May 15, 2018, news broke that Utah and Kentucky had agreed on a two-year series. The Power Five programs would play at venerable Rupp Arena in 2018, and T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
Two days later, it was announced that the CBS Sports Classic, a four-team event involving the Wildcats, Ohio State, UCLA and North Carolina, would move to T-Mobile for 2019, specifically Saturday, three days after the Utah game.
Kentucky scheduling two games in four days in the desert was no accident. According to Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, the original offer from Kentucky was to play that second game at Madison Square Garden. John Calipari has offered up MSG in the past for neutral-site games and/or to complete a series agreement.
Krystkowiak wanted to get that second game further west, so everyone agreed on T-Mobile. For Utah, it got a big-time game against a big-time opponent within reasonable proximity to Salt Lake City for its fans. For Kentucky, it got what was viewed by some as an undercard opportunity in the same building it will play the fifth-ranked Buckeyes in this weekend.
As it turned out, Kentucky got much more than it bargained for on Wednesday, certainly more than just a sparring partner during a 69-66 Utes win. The Wildcats got about as good a showing as this awfully young Utah team is capable of.
Timmy Allen was the best player on the floor, scoring 25 points to go along with nine rebounds and four assists, going right at any defender Calipari threw at him. Both Gach set an early tone with a torrid start on both ends. Rylan Jones made his return from a rib injury and gutted out 38 minutes, seemingly not 100 percent, but quarterbacking well anyway.
Toss in an underrated effort from Riley Battin, who hit a key 3-pointer late before he drew a critical charge, and maybe the perception of what Utah is, and what it could ultimately be this season, was altered on Wednesday.
“Everyone has a different perspective looking at our program, and the only thing, it’s the same thing we talk to our team about, there’s social media and there’s pressure from outside because everybody has opinions,” Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune late Wednesday night after the win. “The only people whose opinion people need to worry about is the coaching staff, teammates, our inner circle.
“I’ve always thought that if anybody’s going to blow smoke up your a--, that’s not really worth listening to. The same person will try to bury you and that’s not worth listening to. Staying within our family is the most important thing.”
UTAH AT SAN DIEGO STATE
At Staples Center, Los Angeles
When • Saturday, 4:30 p.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Network
The Utes (9-2) made enough mistakes against Kentucky to remind you of their youth and inexperience. Seventeen turnovers yielded 20 second-chance points. Within those 17 turnovers were lazy passes and sloppy ball-handling, especially late when the Wildcats ripped off six points in 37 seconds to tie the game at 66.
Conversely, they made enough plays late to escape, Allen’s one-foot floater over Nick Richards to break a 66-all tie with 1:21 left, Battin drawing a charge with 23 seconds left chief among them. With that, the ongoing fascination with this team now zeroes in on the obvious question of how they handle some real prosperity.
The Utes stayed the night in Vegas Wednesday and were slated to bus to Los Angeles on Thursday ahead of a matchup with No. 20 and unbeaten San Diego State at Staples Center. Some might classify that game as gravy after the win over Kentucky, some might classify it as a gigantic opportunity in terms of Utah’s resume. When the NET, the NCAA’s sorting tool to evaluate teams during the season, debuted on Monday, the Aztecs were No. 1. Through games played Wednesday, they were No. 3.
“It’s in-your-face athleticism, it’s a lot more than we faced tonight,” Krystkowiak said. “They’re a deeper team, so they can throw some guys at you. I’m not concerned about it; we’re just going to have a different set of challenges.
“Being the underdog and fighting, it gets a little bit complicated when you do have some success. It’s just as important to keep true to everything you’re doing, not get to full of yourself, and stay hungry. That could be a challenge, but that’s not atypical of any team.”
The Utes and Wildcats have played multiple times in the modern era, often in the postseason, and once for the national championship. A quick review:
2019 • Utah 69, Kentucky 66, at Las Vegas
2018 • Kentucky 88, Utah 61, at Lexington, Ky.
2005 • Kentucky 62, Utah 52, NCAA Austin Region semifinal, Austin, Texas
2003 • Kentucky 74, Utah 54, NCAA Midwest Region second round, Nashville
1999 • Kentucky 56, Utah 48, Preseason NIT, Lexington, Ky.
1998 • Kentucky 78, Utah 69, NCAA championship, San Antonio, Texas
1997 • Kentucky 72, Utah 59, NCAA West Region final, San Jose, Ca.
1996 • Kentucky 101, Utah 70, NCAA Midwest Region semifinal, Minneapolis
1993 • Kentucky 83, Utah 62, NCAA Southeast Region second round, Nashville
1976 • Utah 70, Kentucky 68, UKIT Championship, Lexington, Ky.*
* Kentucky Invitational Tournament