Runnin’ Utes Set to Play on the National Stage

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Adam Fondren

Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) goes up for a one handed dunk as the University of Utah Running Utes take on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the championship game of the 2018 NIT at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March, 30 2018.

By Zach Janis

The University of Utah’s basketball program has been a staple of the school since the team began playing in 1908. Over the years, there has been no greater challenge to the team than its play outside the conference, particularly against powerhouse basketball programs. Just this summer, the U managed to ink games against the University of Kentucky (UK) and the University of Minnesota for the next two years. Playing a prominent basketball team like the Kentucky Wildcats presents a formidable challenge to the Runnin’ Utes and provides the U an opportunity to be on the national stage. For a lesser-known team like Utah, an out-of-market game such as this can provide an excellent marketing and recruiting opportunity.

Let’s meet the two foes that Utah is slated to matchup with next season.

UK has a storied history of excellence on the court and a particularly good record against the Utes in tournament play. The Utes’ Cinderella run to the NCAA Championships in 1998 was cut short by the Wildcats, who hoisted the trophy in the face of players like Andre Miller, Drew Hansen, Zac Dalton and coach Rick Majerus. Kentucky, coached by Tubby Smith, defeated the Utes 78-69 to win the ‘98 championship. Now the Wildcats are led by legendary coach John Calipari and have consistently ranked among the elite of basketball programs across the country. The Wildcats have a solid stance in the NBA draft, always providing a player or two — 121 throughout the program’s history, to be exact — to the league. UK is usually among the top five men’s basketball teams in the nation and in millions of March Madness brackets. The question is this — why would Utah want to play such an overmatched team? Recruiting. Universities like Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio State can achieve a high number of roster players, so recruiting is especially difficult for schools with less-than-favorable recruiting pools.

The Utes will play the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, with Minnesota hosting the first game then returning to Salt Lake City for the second half of the home-and-home. The Golden Gophers are led by coach Richard Pitino, and they welcome the opportunity to play against the Runnin’ Utes.

“I’m thrilled about this series for many reasons,” Pitino said in a Minnesota men’s basketball press release. “Having the first game of the series take place on our home court makes it that much more exciting.”.

The Runnin’ Utes are looking to expand outward in their non-conference play, and picking two of the top programs in the country will help the Utes expand their brand into the Northeast.

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@ZachJanis