Miller: Sold out crowd shows Utes’ improvement as a program

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Last Friday, 14,400 fans flooded the Huntsman Center — but it wasn’t to watch the Runnin’ Utes. The fans came, and have been coming, in droves to watch Utah’s other top-10 team: the Red Rocks.

Even with a Wooden Award candidate on the squad and a team that’s been ranked as high as No. 8, the Utah basketball team still hasn’t got the attendance numbers their gymnastics counterparts have. That might all change Thursday night against Stanford.

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An unfamiliar sight will greet fans looking to purchase tickets for Thursday’s game — the game has sold out.

A sold out crowd hasn’t greeted the Utes for a long time. It was close last season against Arizona (14,266), in December against Wichita State (14,319) and even in this season’s Pac-12 opener against USC (14,140), but still couldn’t reach the Huntsman Center’s approximate capacity of 15,000.

If the MUSS does its part on Thursday that is what Utah could be looking at.

As things stand now, one of the biggest crowds in Huntsman history will be on hand at Utah’s Feb. 28 bout against Arizona. That game likely will feature two top-10 teams and the regular season conference championship will be on the line. It’s already sold out and there are whispers that MUSS members will be camping out to make sure they get a good spot in the arena.

But all that has just as much to do with Arizona than it does Utah.

For years, the Utah’s gymnastics team has been able to get near-capacity crowds based off nothing but its own merit. Fans come to see them, and only them — a competitive opponent is just frosting on the cake.

By selling out the Stanford contest, the same can now be said about the Runnin’ Utes. Now, granted the Cardinal is ranked fourth in the Pac-12, but that is more of a testament to the weakness of the conference than a sign Stanford is really good at basketball. All things considered, the Cardinal is an average opponent, and the contest really isn’t generating much pregame buzz.

It’s been a long, slow climb from the playing in front of less than half-filled arenas, but Krystkowiak has finally reached the top of the mountain.

Utah’s pre-game projection video montage is played alongside the song “Sirius” by Alan Parsons Project — a tune most would connect to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s. It’s a tune that gives you a bit of nostalgia, as it was a staple to some classic basketball moments.

At just about the same time as those great Bulls teams, the Utes were at the height of their powers under Rick Majerus. Utah went to the National Championship game in 1998, the same year Michael Jordan won his final championship. As the song plays, image after image of old Utah glory is played, but the montage ends with the current team.

The greatness achieved on the hill under Majerus is what the Utes are trying to bring back. Fans already have gotten nostalgic looking at the pre-game montage, and on Thursday they should get that same feeling just by glancing around the sold out crowd.

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@millerjryan