Runnin’ Utes Welcome Opportunity to Play Duke in “Mecca of Basketball”

brandon taylor 2 Justin Adams

On Saturday, the Runnin’ Utes will take on their biggest challenge of the season yet when they square off against No. 7 Duke in the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. This moment may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some players, and Utah will need to play its most complete game if it hopes to pull off an upset.

Many point to this game as a chance at revenge for Utah, who saw its season end last year in Houston with a loss to none other than the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16. But for head coach Larry Krystkowiak, it’s about much more than that.

Sophomore forword Jakob Peoliti (42) going for a lay up in an NCAA men's basketball game against IPFW at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, Dec 5, 2015.  Chris Ayers, The Daily Utah Chronicle.

Sophomore forword Jakob Peoliti (42) going for a lay up in an NCAA men’s basketball game against IPFW at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Saturday, Dec 5, 2015. Chris Ayers, The Daily Utah Chronicle.

“[Revenge is] not why I chose to play the game,” Krystkowiak said. “It was an opportunity to play in the basketball mecca that’s probably the most recognizable basketball building and facility there is.”

Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Stephen Curry. Some of the best names in the history of the game have had some of their best performances of their respective careers within the confines of Madison Square Garden, making it sacred territory in the basketball world.

The players aren’t oblivious to the importance of this game’s setting, either. Sophomore Kyle Kuzma is elated about playing in the Garden and is looking forward to the opportunity.

“They say that’s the mecca of basketball, so growing up, if you’re a basketball fan, you know about the Garden,” Kuzma said. “You know how much that means. A lot of people have had special games there. It’s a great feeling to play in the Garden.”

While the venue will be foreign territory for the Utes, the opponent is not. As mentioned earlier, Duke is the team that sent Utah packing last season, though this season’s picture is completely different.

The Blue Devils are no longer led by superstars Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow and now rely on sophomore Grayson Allen and newcomers Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton. With these three leading the way, this team has had an impressive start to the season.

Utah Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak tells the Runnin' Utes which play to execute.  The Utah Utes beat the San Diego Aztecs 81-76 at the Huntsman Center on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015

Utah Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak tells the Runnin’ Utes which play to execute. The Utah Utes beat the San Diego Aztecs 81-76 at the Huntsman Center on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015

All that said, the Blue Devils will be without their best post player in Amille Jefferson, who was ruled out indefinitely with an injury. The center was averaging a double-double and was a body that would have been used to guard Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. Without Jefferson, it will be tough for Duke to stop Poeltl down low.

Despite the underwhelming start to the season, Brandon Taylor, who is coming off a 13-point effort against Savannah State on Wednesday, is confident heading into this matchup with Duke.

“We have a lot of stuff to work on and a lot of plays to brush up on, but I feel good,” Taylor said. “It’s a great opportunity to play in the Garden to play against Duke. It’s going to be a great college atmosphere.”

With Christmas season flooding the streets of New York City — a place that a number of players on the team have never visited — it’s sure to be a fun weekend for the Runnin’ Utes. But aside from all of the sparkling lights and Christmas carols, Krystkowiak is preparing his team for a battle, nothing else.

“It’s a fun trip for a lot of people, but I just reminded our team that this is a business trip, for sure,” Krystkowiak said. “Really a short turnaround, a little bit unusual, and we have to get focused in.”

The Utes tip-off against Duke at Madison Square Garden at 12:00 p.m. EST.

g.adams@dailyutahchronicle.com

@GriffDoug