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So the Utah Utes have arrived at the Final Four venue, a year in advance.
The rebuilding of Utah's program is ahead of schedule, by anyone's gauge, with the Utes facing Duke in a Sweet 16 matchup Friday night at NRG Stadium. The home of the NFL's Houston Texans will host the 2016 Final Four in a 71,000-seat building with a raised court and giant drapes behind the baskets.
Big stage? I'd say so.
"It's crazy," Ute center Jakob Poeltl, a freshman from Austria, said after the team's open practice Thursday. "I've never even been in a stadium like that. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like to play in that."
Poeltl helped the Utes extend their season beyond last weekend's visit to an NBA arena in Portland, Ore. Whether or not he stays in school and pursues a return trip to Houston next year is the biggest issue hovering over Utah's offseason whenever it begins.
Here's the irony: The better Poeltl plays against Duke center Jahlil Okafor, the more likely he'll enter the NBA draft this spring. So factor that element into your viewing of Friday's exercise.
Okafor is a sure top-five pick as a freshman; Poeltl would go somewhere in the first round. Or maybe finding himself overmatched against Okafor would persuade him to stay at Utah another year. But should Ute fans really hope that happens, with an Elite Eight opportunity at stake?
Even though the Utes' next loss will end their season, Poeltl is managing to keep his professional dilemma out of his mind this month. "I've done it all season," he said, "and now it's no different."
Regardless of the future implications, and with the disclaimer that Utah vs. Duke is bigger than Poeltl vs. Okafor, watching them battle will be fun. "Yeah, for sure," said Jeremy Olsen, another of Utah's centers. "People talk about Jakob maybe going to the NBA this year or next year, sometime in the future, and it will be good for him to measure himself, see how he stacks up against Okafor."
Olsen, known to his teammates as "J.O.," shares his initials with Okafor. That's probably where the comparison ends. Okafor is an opponent the Utes "couldn't quite emulate" in practice, said senior center Dallin Bachynski, as the three of them took turns trying to prepare one another.
Okafor posts up inside with the basketball about nine times a game more than twice as much as Jazz forward Derrick Favors did as a Georgia Tech freshman, for example, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That volume of offense will test Poeltl, who tends to get into foul trouble against big opponents, as happened against Georgetown in the round of 32.
Poeltl played only 18 minutes, but Bachynski filled in nicely. Dealing with Okafor will require multiple centers, and varied defensive looks.
"Not giving away any secrets," Bachynski said, "we've got to make sure we throw a couple different curveballs at him. It definitely is a good test, two good freshmen coming in, and seeing how one matches up against the other. Also, what we've got to think of is Okafor has to guard [Poeltl], when we're on offense."
That's good stuff. Bachynski will be happy to play as much as possible, but it sure sounds like he'll enjoy watching the game when he's on the bench from such a low perspective that players must climb stairs to the court.
That's just one of the oddities of this venue, which was still being converted for basketball as of Thursday morning, following the 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Last week's two rounds of NCAA play were the first rodeo for Utah's players, and they responded well.
Playing against Duke in the Sweet 16 presents a different challenge for the Utes. They seem respectful of the Blue Devils, but not overwhelmed. They welcome this opportunity against a brand-name opponent. He's downplaying the individual matchup, but Poeltl said, "You don't get to play against a player like Jahlil Okafor every day."
Not in college, anyway.