Western Kentucky will be riding a serious hot streak when it faces Utah at 6 p.m. CDT Tuesday in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament inside Madison Square Garden in New York.
But the Runnin’ Utes have plenty of momentum on their side as well.
Utah heads to New York having won three straight and nine of its last 11. A loss to Oregon in the Pacific 12 Conference tournament and at home to Southern California – whom WKU beat Monday – are the team’s only blemishes since Feb. 8
The Utes went 8-3 during the nonconference portion of their schedule and started the year 4-0 before losing to UNLV. According to the NCAA, UU had a nonconference strength of schedule of 220.
After going 11-7 in league play, and rebounding from a four-game losing streak in early January, Utah lost to Oregon 66-64 in the Pac-12 tournament. The Utes, who finished with an RPI of 59, then beat California Davis, Louisiana State and Saint Mary’s by an average of 14.3 points to keep their season alive.
Senior guard and Long Beach State transfer Justin Bibbins leads four Utah players scoring in double figures with 14.7 points per game – Bibbins is also an 86.3 percent shooter from the line and has registered 4.7 assists per content. Senior forward David Collette (12.5 ppg), junior guard and Southern Methodist transfer Sedrick Barefield (11.6 ppg) and senior forward Tyler Rawson (10.8 ppg) are also scoring threats for a Utah team which ranks among the top 60 teams in college basketball in 3-point attempts, assists per game, assist-to-turnover ratio, shooting defense, free-throw shooting and 3-pointers per game.
Collette, who started his career at Utah State, ranks eighth nationally with a field goal percentage of 64.
The Utah roster also features sophomore Kolbe Caldwell, a guard who graduated from Warren Central High School in Bowling Green in 2015. Caldwell played in 30 games for Lewis and Clark Community College in Illinois where he averaged 9.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game during the 2015-16 season.
A 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard, Caldwell then transferred to Shawnee Community College in Illinois and redshirted last year. He had a season-high nine points in 24 minutes Dec. 31 at Oregon State and has played in 26 games for the Utes this season.
Utah is coached by Larry Krystkowiak, a Montana graduate who was named Most Valuable Player three times in the Big Sky Conference and who enjoyed a 10-year NBA career with San Antonio, Milwaukee, Utah, Orlando, Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers. His coaching career began in 1998 and he’s held head coaching titles at his alma mater, with the Idaho Stampede, the Milwaukee Bucks and at Utah where he’s now 137-96 since taking over in 2011.
The Utes are making their first trip to the NIT semifinals since 1992 when they lost to Notre Dame and then beat Florida in the now-defunct third-place game. Utah lost to Purdue in the 1974 NIT championship and beat Kentucky in the 1947 NIT title game.
Western Kentucky has never played Utah before.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop