Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the Utah Utes:
1. Utah has been an up-and-down team.
The Utes trend line runs perfectly up, then down. Utah opened with a 75-61 win over Maine, then lost 78-69 at Minnesota. It whipped Mississippi Valley 98-63, then lost to Hawaii 90-79 in the first round of the Wooden Legacy. After a 75-66 win over Grand Canyon, the Utes were blown out 79-57 by Northwestern in the Wooden. A 69-64 win over Tulsa was followed by a 74-59 loss to archrival BYU last Saturday.
The Utes trailed BYU just 32-28 at halftime, but watched the Cougars score the first 13 points of the second half to push the lead to 17. The rest of the way, Utah never drew closer than eight points (54-46).
Ken Pomeroy ranks Utah 129th in overall efficency; 74th in offensive efficiency and 197th in defensive efficiency. Utah is shooting 45 percent from the floor on the season, including 36 percent from three-point range. The Utes are shooting 71.2 percent from the foul line.
2. The Utes are tall.
According to Pomeroy, the Utes rank 21st in the nation in height at an average of 78.4 inches. Novak Tapalovic is a 7-foot senior from Siberia who transferred to Salt Lake City from Idaho State. Riley Battin is a 6-9 freshman from Oak Park, Calif. Lahat Thioune is a 7-foot freshman from Senegal. Jayce Johnson is a 7-foot junior froom Mission Viego, Calif. Marc Reininger is a 6-9 junior from Monument, Colo.
Despite the height, the Utes have been so-so on the boards. They rank 134th in offensive rebound percentage and 30.0. They are 112th in defensive rebound percentage, limiting opponents to converting 27.4 percent of their offensive rebound opportunities. They were outrebounded 40-28 by BYU. Overall, they are outrebounding opponents by 1.9 per game.
Of the big men, Johnson leads the team in rebounds at 5.6 per game to go with his 5.3 points. Topalovic is averaging 5.6 points and 4.3 rebounds. Though 6-9, Battin plays more out on the floor. He has made 10 of 25 three-point shots and is averaging 8.5 points and 2.8 rebounds.
Perhaps playing to height, Utah is one of the most deliberate teams in the nation. Its average possession length of 17.9 seconds ranks 225th.
The Utes are also young. Pomeroy ranks Utah 250th in the nation in experience at an average of 1.45 years. Kentucky ranked 352nd out of 353 schools at an average of 0.66 years.
3. Even the Utes’ coach is tall.
Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak is a 6-foot-10 former star at Montana who played several years in the NBA. A second-round pick of the Chicago Bulls, Krystkowiak played for the Spurs, Bucks, Jazz, Magic, Bulls and Lakers in his pro career, which ended in 1998.
After that, this Coach K was an assistant at Montana and Old Dominion before becoming head coach for the Idaho Stampede. He returned to Montana as head coach in 2004-05. He went 42-20 at his alma mater, taking the Grizzlies to the NCAA Tournament in each of his two years.
He left Montana to join Terry Stotts’ staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. When Stotts was fired during the 2006-07 season, Krystkowiak took over and went 5-13. He was fired after going 26-56 the next season. He was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets in 2010-11 before being named Utah’s head coach.
He survived a rough start with the Utes, going 6-25 and 15-18 his first two seasons. Utah has won 20 or more games each of the last five seasons. The Utes reached the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 and 2015-16 while settling for the NIT the other three years.
Last season, Utah knocked off Western Kentucky 69-64 in the NIT semifinals before losing to Penn State 82-66 in the finals.
With his 4-4 start this year, Krystkowiak is 141-101 as the Utah coach. He’s 63-61 in the Pac-12.
4. Utah’s best player is Sedrick Barefield.
A Filipino-American from Corono, Calif., Barefield is the son of former San Diego State star Ray Barefield. A 6-foot-2 senior, Barefield leads the team in scoring at 14 points per game. Barefield played one year at SMU for Larry Brown before transferring to Utah, where he averaged nine points as a sophomore and 12 points last year as a junior.
He declared for the NBA Draft but did not sign with an agent and decided to return for his senior season. He’s shooting 36.7 percent from the floor, including 34.6 from three-point range. He’s made 22 of 25 free throws for 88 percent.
Barefield scored 26 points in the win over Grand Canyon. In win over Tulsa, Barefield scored all 15 of his points in the second half. He was one of eight from the floor in the loss to Hawaii and three of 11 from three-point range in the loss to BYU.
5. Kentucky-Utah has a history.
The two teams have not met since 2005. From 1993 through 2005, however, the Cats and Utes met seven times. Six of those meetings were in the NCAA Tournament. And UK won all six.
The Cats beat the Utes 83-62 in the 1993 Southeast Region semifinals in Nashville. They whipped the Utes 101-70 in the 1996 Midwest Region semifinals in Minneapolis. They beat the Utes 72-59 in the 1997 West Regional finals in San Jose.
Then in 1998, Tubby Smith’s team rallied in the NCAA Championship Game to beat Rick Majerus and the Utes 78-69 in San Antonio. (That was UK’s seventh national championship.) The late Majerus, who died on Dec. 1, 2012, was 0-6 against Kentucky.
In 2003, UK beat Utah 74-54 in the Midwest Region second round in Nashville. Then in 2005, Kentucky beat Utah 62-52 in the Austin Region semifinals before losing to Michigan State in the finals.
Overall, UK leads the series 9-2. This is Utah’s first trip to Lexington since 1999 when the Utes lost 56-48 in the Preseason NIT in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky vs. Utah
When: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2018
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
Time: 5 p.m. ET
Television: ESPN2 with Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt