Mark Story

The team Kentucky basketball has tormented like no other is coming back for more

Kentucky forward Heshimu Evans blocked the shot of Utah's Andre Miller late in Kentucky's 78-69 victory over the Utes in the 1998 NCAA championship game.
Kentucky forward Heshimu Evans blocked the shot of Utah's Andre Miller late in Kentucky's 78-69 victory over the Utes in the 1998 NCAA championship game. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

The announcement Thursday that Kansas is returning to Rupp Arena next Jan. 26 as part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge means the 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball non-conference schedule will be fairly epic.

Before John Calipari's Wildcats try to snap their three-game losing streak against Bill Self and the Jayhawks, UK will also face Duke (Nov. 6 in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis) and North Carolina (Dec. 22 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago).

As best as I can tell, the only other time Kentucky has played all three of those college hoops blue bloods in one season was 1969-70.

Yet the most poignant contest on the 2018-19 UK hoops slate will not come against one of those three kings of NCAA basketball. Nor will it be the Cats welcoming new Louisville Coach Chris Mack into our state's basketball blood feud.

When Utah visits Rupp Arena on Dec. 15, you will see the most psychologically intriguing contest of the impending Kentucky hoops season. Over the past 25 years, Kentucky basketball has tormented no program like it has haunted the poor Utes.

Tubby Utah trophy
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith and the 1998 Wildcats hoisted the NCAA championship trophy after rallying from 41-31 down at halftime to beat Utah 78-69 and claim the most unlikely of UK’s eight men’s basketball national championships. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Six times since 1993, the two schools have met in the NCAA Tournament.

See if you detect a pattern in these results:

1993: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the round of 32.

1996: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the round of 16.

1997: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the round of eight.

1998: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the NCAA championship game — by rallying from 10 down at halftime.

2003: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the round of 32.

2005: The Wildcats beat the Utes in the round of 16.

Many of the modern playing legends of Utah hoops must have nightmares about UK.

Over three NCAA tourney meetings (1996-98) with Kentucky, future 17-year NBA point guard Andre Miller committed a whopping 17 combined turnovers against the Cats.

Jeff Sheppard Utah nets
Jeff Sheppard, whose basket gave UK the lead for good, cut down the net in San Antonio after the Cats beat Utah to win the 1998 title. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

In 1997, UK ended the college career of Utah all-time leading scorer Keith Van Horn.

Eight years later, No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Andrew Bogut met the same fate via the Cats.

During his stellar coaching career (1989-2004) with the Utes, the late Rick Majerus went 17-10 in NCAA Tournament games.

Five of those 10 tourney losses were against Kentucky.

Interestingly, the coming season's meeting between Kentucky and Utah — a second game between the schools is contracted to be played Dec. 18, 2019, in Las Vegas — will be the first time the Cats and Utes have ever met in a non-tournament setting.

All-time, UK leads the series 9-2. Utah's two victories came in the finals of the 1947 NIT and the championship of the University of Kentucky Invitation Tournament in 1976-77.

Besides its six NCAA tourney victories over the Utes, Kentucky also beat Utah in the 1944 NIT, the 1954-55 UKIT and the 1999-2000 Pre-Season NIT.

Much has changed for Utah since Kentucky last faced the Utes in the 2005 NCAA tourney. In the 2011-12 school year, Utah joined the Pac-12 Conference.

After two subsequent head coaches struggled to meet the high standard set for Utah basketball by Majerus — who died in 2012 at age 64 — former NBA forward and coach Larry Krystkowiak has led the Utes to five straight 20-win seasons.

That has included NCAA Tournament trips in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the former ending with a tough loss to eventual NCAA champ Duke in the round of 16.

This past season, Utah finished 23-12. After being passed over by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, Krystkowiak and the Utes advanced to the NIT Final Four.

In New York City, Utah ended the season of Western Kentucky in the semifinals before falling to Penn State in the title game.

The Utes' top two scorers from the NIT runners-up will be lost to graduation, but the next three leading point producers from this past season will be in Rupp Arena on Dec. 15.

After all the hurt Kentucky basketball has caused the Utes these past 25 years, seeing Utah come to Lexington to try again against the Cats will be fascinating.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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