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In a radio appearance on ESPN 700 on Monday, Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak alluded to a "surprise" opponent he hoped to add to the nonconference schedule next fall.
This one did not disappoint.
The Runnin' Utes will tip off against defending national champion Duke on Dec. 19 at Madison Square Garden in New York, the most high-profile nonconference game Utah will play next season. Televised on ESPN or ESPN2, the marquee matchup will be a rematch of Duke's 63-57 victory over the Utes in the Sweet 16 in March.
It's Krystkowiak's refrain since the NCAA Tournament run that he wished he had a mulligan against the Blue Devils. But while fans might froth at the mouth for "revenge," that's not how he sees it.
"We've got to slow our roll a little bit: This isn't about redemption or getting anything back," he told The Tribune on Thursday evening. "It's a quality nonconference opponent, and it's a successful program we're trying to be like. We're trying to take those opportunities and do something pretty special with our schedule."
The game came together after another opportunity fell through. After it appeared Utah wouldn't go to the Coaches vs. Cancer event they played last year in Las Vegas, Krystkowiak said ESPN approached the Utes with a chance to play Duke.
"I'd like to claim credit, but it was really our coaching staff and ESPN," athletic director Chris Hill said. "I think it's all a part of where we want to go: Our staff has built over the years, and now we're a program that has to worry about RPI every year, and we want to take those opportunities to give our program exposure."
It will not be a straight rematch: Many of the stars of the March contest have left college for the NBA, including Utah's Delon Wright, and Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. But Utah brings back starters Jakob Poeltl, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge.
Bringing those players back, Krystkowiak said, is another reason Utah is glad to land a game in the best-known arena in the country's biggest media market.
"We have four seniors who have really helped build our program and who we're going to miss after senior night rolls around," he said. "We want to take them to Madison Square Garden. We want to take them to New York around Christmas, which not everyone has been fortunate enough to experience. There's nothing like it."
The announcement came as a surprise to several players, including Loveridge and Taylor. Loveridge said he's never been to Madison Square Garden, and as a Knicks fan he's glad to finally make that pilgrimage.
Loveridge acknowledged that the Utes will have to separate some emotions from the NCAA Tournament loss from the newly scheduled regular season contest, but he thinks they can do it.
"They'll have a whole new team," he said. "It's still Duke, but it's a different situation on a big stage early in the season. It's going to fun to face that challenge."
Krystkowiak also claims redemption won't be a factor, but it's hard to imagine the Utes fully shaking themselves free of the loss to Duke in Houston on March 27, when they shot poorly at NRG Stadium and missed a chance to go to the program's first Elite Eight since 1998. The Utes finished 26-9 the best record of the Krystkowiak era while Mike Krzyzewski led the Blue Devils to their fifth national championship during his tenure.
The Blue Devils restocked talent as few programs can. Duke signed Rivals' No. 1-ranked recruiting class this past year, with four signees ranked among the top 25 prospects. Other role players return from the title-winning roster, including Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson.
There was also Krystkowiak's relationship and admiration of Krzyzewski to consider, and the limited opportunities he'll have to get the better of the 68-year-old who leads Division I in all-time wins.
"He's probably the coach I have the utmost respect for," Krystkowiak said. "It's not a secret he won't be coaching forever."
In the past few seasons, Krystkowiak has taken strides against difficult opponents after criticism in his early days for soft scheduling. Next year may mark Utah's most challenging nonconference slate yet: In addition to Duke, the Utes will also play Wichita State, San Diego State, BYU and several Power 5 schools in the Puerto Rico Tip Off. The remainder of the schedule is expected to come out either Friday or early next week.
The Utes are 1-3 against Duke. Utah's lone victory was in where else? Madison Square Garden, a 78-75 win in the 1970 NIT.