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Utah Utes basketball: Runnin’ Utes can’t wait to go to Hawaii

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SALT LAKE CITY — An excited bunch of University of Utah basketball players are flying to Hawaii this morning for the first time.

The Ute players and coaches, who are still giddy over Friday's come-from-behind win over Boise State, were scheduled to fly out of Salt Lake late this morning and arrive in Honolulu mid-afternoon and prepare for three games in the Diamond Head Classic this week at the University of Hawaii's Stan Sheriff Center.

The 7-3 Utes are opening with the defending NCAA runner-up Butler Wednesday night (9 p.m. MST, ESPN-U) in the eight-team tournament which also includes No. 9 Baylor, Mississippi State, Florida State, Washington State, San Diego and host Hawaii.

Coach Jim Boylen has been to Hawaii before, but only one of his players, Jay Watkins, has been to the islands before.

The players are all excited about the opportunity to spend their Christmas holidays in a place like Hawaii, while realizing they won't be there to sit in the sun all day and go body surfing.

"Any time you get a chance to go to Hawaii is great no matter what it's for," said Ute center Jason Washburn. "But it's a business trip and we've got to really keep our focus. It's a really good team we're playing on Wednesday and we've got to be ready for them from the beginning."

"I think it's going to be an awesome experience," said David Foster. "It will be fun, but we'll be focused on the tournament."

Boylen has been to Hawaii twice with Michigan State for the Maui Invitational and once with the Golden State Warriors for training camp and a pair of games against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Sheriff Center. He said his players will get to have some fun besides playing three games.

"It's a business trip, but it's an educational trip too. You've got to have some fun," he said. "We've got some things planned. Friday will be a day we'll do a little sightseeing and the guys want to see the North Shore and see the surfing. On Tuesday night we have the luau party before the tournament."

Watkins spent eight days in Hawaii when he played for the University of San Francisco four years ago in the Rainbow Classic, the predecessor to the Diamond Head Classic. He said the trip was a lot of fun, "other than we lost all three games."

UTE NOTES: Boylen said the Utes will practice at the University of Hawaii before the first game, but will practice at BYU-Hawaii in Laie on Friday in between the second- and third-round games. ... The Utes will play either Florida State or Hawaii in the second round. The first-round winners play at 8 p.m. MST Thursday with the losers playing at 10:30 p.m. The final-round games will all be played on Christmas Day. ... Jay Watkins, who missed Friday's win over Boise State with a sore back, said he expects to be ready to play in Hawaii. ... Freshman J.J. O'Brien, who has sat out since the opening game with a stress fracture in his foot, will make the trip and could possibly play. ... Butler is 6-4 and coming off an 83-50 win over Stanford Saturday.

e-mail: sor@desnews.com