Everyone in Salt Lake City knows. The UCLA Bruins are in town.
As storied a program as there is in college basketball, maybe not currently, but in totality, the Bruins have the stuff of Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina. They even have the legacy of John Wooden aka "The Wizard of Westwood" and names like Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. It's a legacy that's hard to top.
Certainly the Bruins' presence in Salt Lake City, a simple matter of some Pac-12 conference business, is noteworthy. In a matter of days, Utah will have faced another storied program, the No. 4 ranked Arizona Wildcats, followed by UCLA.
Indeed, things are certainly different these days for Ute fans, but more-so for Ute players and coaches who are the ones tasked with facing some of the giants in all of sports.
While the story lines are obvious and noteworthy for media and maybe even glamorous or exciting for fans, it makes for just one more thing to contend with for Ute athletes. None more so than for the Runnin' Utes, who are clawing and fighting just to achieve respectability after difficult and tumultuous circumstances surrounding the new coaching staff and turning over of players over the last three years.
With a sudden interest in the Runnin' Utes, more media have found their way to practice this week, asking all kinds of questions about playing Arizona and UCLA back-to-back, and whether there is extra pressure, extra energy or a bit of a stronger desire to win.
The answers have largely been the same, but the best one, perhaps came from head man Larry Krystkowiak, when asked, for umpteenth time about hosting the Bruins.
"Do I want to win this game? Sure. Of course, I do. I want to win every game we play, but I want to win this one the most, not because it's UCLA or whoever, I want to win because it's the next game on the schedule," he said warily. "That sounds like coach speak, and that's not what I'm trying to do, it's just the fact of the matter. This is the only game we're thinking about, the only one we've game-planned for, and that makes it the only one that we have control over. You can only win the game you're playing, but you can't control who that is."
Senior Jarred DuBois echoed his coach, focusing more on his team's need for a win, than worrying about potential opponents.
"None of this matters anymore. We've proven to ourselves that we can play at a high level, and we can hang around with these teams," he stated resolutely. "Whether we're playing someone in pre-season or in conference, regardless of what conference that is, we need to get a win. If that's against UCLA, so be it. I guess it has to be, because that's who's next."
At 0-2 in conference play, close calls and almosts notwithstanding, the Utes do need a win Thursday, a fact that DuBois is well aware.
"If you're looking at these games like, we almost won, to me that's the same thing as saying we almost did enough or we were almost prepared," DuBois continued. "When you look at it like that, that sounds crazy. All that means is you didn't do enough. The only thing I know is we need to do more. I need to do more, as a senior."
In approaching another Ute for a post-practice interview, he said, only half-jokingly, "I do know that we are playing UCLA Thursday." Though that question or anything related to the Bruins wasn't on this particular list of questions, it showed how much media can play on the minds of players.
Krystkowiak addressed the issue head on.
"I have a lot of respect for UCLA, for that program and for all that they've accomplished, of course. I get all of that, but I can't get caught up in it," he explained. "I for sure can't let my players get caught up in that. We're not playing their past, we're playing the five guys, who are talented, big-time guys, but we're playing the five guys who are here now. And we have to find a way to beat them. That's enough, we've got our hands full there without worrying about the rest of it."
To be fair, UCLA is making its first appearance in basketball Thursday since Utah became a member of the Pac-12 conference, due to a scheduling quirk that never did see the Bruins visit the Huntsman Center last season.
Continuing on the topic, Krystkowiak acknowledged the difficulties of the situation which, in all liklihood, will start to dissipate as Ute fans grow more and more accustomed to big time programs coming into town to face the Utes.
"I'm very aware that it's UCLA and that it's something fun maybe for the fans, it's exciting. I won't lie, when during football season and USC came to town, I had a little extra adrenaline. I had a little extra juice for that, maybe as a fan," he said. "But that's one of the challenges that we all face up here now, as coaches, is dealing with these kinds of big-time games. We have to figure out, mentally, how to work around that because it's a reality for us now. It's every day stuff in the Pac-12. We need to start treating it that way."
Krystkowiak's senior leader seems to be trying to perpuate that message, even if every headline in the state is dominated with headlines about UCLA, which is all about the Bruin past. Keeping things in perspective, UCLA is a quality team that certainly presents a big and formidable challenge for the Utes, but is no longer ranked in the Top 25.
"We're not a team that's satisfied with almost winning. I don't know if we ever were, but we've taken some big steps, mostly in terms of confidence over these past few weeks," DuBois insisted. "So we're a confident team who's learning what our strengths and weaknesses are, which helps you to understand and refine what you do well, and kind of tailor things to that. We believe we can compete with anyone, including our next opponent on the schedule, whoever that may be."