WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The Whitman College men’s basketball team gets an early jump on its season, and takes a step into the lion’s den, when the Missionaries play an exhibition game on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The David-and-Goliath match-up, which counts on neither team’s record, is the first of two exhibitions the NCAA Div. I Utes will play before launching their regular season schedule.
Utah, the defending Mountain West Conference champion, last played in March in the NCAA National Championship Tournament, beating Oklahoma 67-58 before losing to Kentucky 62-52 in the regionals. Seven-foot Australian Andrew Bogut paced the Utes last season, averaging 20.4 points and 12.2 rebounds. The consensus National Player of the Year, Bogut was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks as the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.
Although Bogut is gone, Utah returns two senior starters in 6-foot-3 senior point guard Tim Drisdom and 6-foot-7 small forward Bryant Markson.
Whitman, which competes in the NCAA Div. III Northwest Conference (NWC), returns three senior starters in 6-foot-2 guards Greg Ricker and Matt Kelly and 6-foot-8 center Erik Kofler. Also back are two junior starters, 6-foot-5 forward Kyle Born and 5-foot-8 point guard Ian Warner.
Born, who shot .667 percent from the floor in NWC games last season, will miss the Utah game as he recovers from a stress fracture in his left foot. That means more playing time for 6-foot-5 sophomore Aaron Hazel, who shot hit .608 percent from floor last season in conference games. Born and Hazel ranked first and second in NWC field goal percentage last winter.
Despite Whitman’s returning talent, head coach Skip Molitor harbors no illusions about the extent of his team’s underdog status. “Our kids love the challenge and the opportunity,” Molitor says. “If we play well, we can keep the game interesting. If we don’t play well, it won’t be so interesting.”
The Utah game will mark the ninth time in the past decade that Molitor has sent a squad onto the floor of a Division I opponent. Three years ago, the Missionaries trailed Utah State by just seven points at halftime, 34-27, and then cut the deficit to four points early in the second half before losing by 24. The Missionaries lost by just 14 points in a game at Eastern Washington, and they trailed in a game at Gonzaga by a relatively slim 14 points in the second half. Whitman’s other Division I losses have come at the hands of such teams as Montana and Portland State.
“For us, the key is to keep the game as competitive for as long as possible,” Molitor says. For a prohibitive favorite, the pressure tends to build as the game hits crunch time. And, from time to time, one of the smaller schools manages to knock off a Division I foe, although Molitor recognizes that a Whitman victory over Utah would count as a colossal upset. “Most of the time, the Division I teams that get upset aren’t the defending Mountain West champions.”
The Nov. 5 game will be played in Utah’s Huntsman Center, which seats in excess of 15,000. Molitor is expecting a crowd of about 10,000, or about times the number of fans Whitman can squeeze into its Sherwood Center. The game starts at 5 p.m. (Mountain Standard Time).
“Our kids appreciate the opportunity to play in one of the larger arenas,” Molitor says, “and we try to make the most of the opportunity.”
After the game, win or lose, Molitor and his charges will head to Salt Lake City’s Delta Center to see the Utah Jazz host the Phoenix Suns in an early season NBA game.
Whitman kicks off its regular season on Sunday, Nov. 20, when it hosts Montana Tech in a 3 p.m. game.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
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