Sixth-ranked Kentucky timed some of its Christmas break to spend five days in Las Vegas to play two games — including one of the bigger games of the college basketball season so far against No. 5 Ohio State on Saturday.
But first, the Wildcats will face Utah on Wednesday night at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena in the Neon Hoops Showcase.
Three days later, the Wildcats (8-1) will be matched against the Buckeyes at T-Mobile Arena in the CBS Sports Classic, a doubleheader that also features UCLA vs. North Carolina.
Kentucky has played eight of its first nine games at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats will try to prioritize business over pleasure in the brief getaway before the players go home to their families to celebrate Christmas and then return to Lexington, Ky., to face No. 3 Louisville on Dec. 28.
“Next step for this team is getting everybody to play well,” sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley told reporters last week after Kentucky’s 67-53 win over Georgia Tech at Rupp Arena. “Some guys are playing well but some guys are just trying to find their way. Some of our freshmen and stuff. Once we all get playing well, we’re going to be a hard team to beat.”
Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans is one of those players who is “trying to find their way” for Kentucky, which has won six consecutive games since a Nov. 12 home loss to Evansville.
Hagans scored 21 points, above his 13.7-points-per-game average, to lead Kentucky in its win over Georgia Tech, but he also had six turnovers. Despite the mistakes against the Yellow Jackets, coach John Calipari noticed improvement. Hagans also had seven rebounds and seven assists.
“He knows what to expect and he has no anxiety about what he is doing and knows coming into the game,” Calipari said. “He knows game-planning and he’ll watch tape, and he’s so far advanced and again, there may be better point guards out there, I’ll have to watch closely. The way he is playing, he’s starting to master his skills.”
Nick Richards, a 6-foot-11 junior forward, leads Kentucky at 13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 68.9 percent from the field. Tyrese Maxey and Quickley are both averaging 12.3 points.
The Utes (8-2) and Wildcats have quite a history when it comes to big games on neutral courts, with Kentucky holding a 7-1 advantage.
Utah’s lone win was in the 1947 NIT championship game, a 49-45 decision at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats beat the Utes 78-69 in the NCAA championship game on March 30, 1998, in San Antonio.
This Utah squad has won four straight games, all in Salt Lake City, the latest a 60-49 triumph over Weber State on Saturday.
Timmy Allen finished with a game-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists vs. Weber State. Riley Battin posted nine points with a career-high 10 rebounds while Branden Carlson chipped in with nine points and eight rebounds. Mikael Jantunen nearly had his first-career double-double, scoring nine points and grabbing a season-high nine rebounds.
Freshman point guard Rylan Jones, who is averaging 11.7 points and 5.2 assists, has missed most of the past two games with rib and ankle injuries. He is questionable to play against Kentucky after missing the Weber State game.
“Rylan is somewhat of a calming, steadying influence that helps dictate the game for us, allows us to get out and run,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Missing any piece is difficult. I thought it was good for our other guys to have to unite and grow up and take care of it and try to do things collectively.”
–Field Level Media