BYU basketball fans will almost certainly make their presence felt at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center, as the Cougars and Utes renew a bitter college basketball rivalry for the 254th time on Saturday at the soldout venue in Salt Lake City.
But make no mistake about it.
“But just with a lot of stuff that has been going on, this game is going to be personal. I love (the) Deion Sanders thing, like, ‘They kinda like to make things personal.’ So it is going to be a fun game and I feel like we are going to be ready.” — BYU guard Trevin Knell
When the contest tips off at 5 p.m. MST and is televised by the Pac-12 Network, the No. 14-ranked Cougars (8-0) will face the most hostile crowd they will have faced since last Feb. 18 at then-No. 17 Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California.
The undefeated Cougars have answered every question put before them this season while rising to No. 1 in the NET rankings and No. 6 in KenPom.com, even while not being at full strength. But this midterm exam surpasses all that, especially because Utah (6-2) seemingly has its best team in years and would like nothing better than to snap its three-game losing skid in the rivalry game and bring coach Mark Pope’s squad down to earth.
The veteran Utes, No. 39 in KenPom.com and No. 49 in the NET rankings, also have an accomplishment the Cougars don’t have yet: a true road win. Utah downed Saint Mary’s 78-71 in Moraga on Nov. 27.
BYU opened as a four-point favorite, per the Action Network.
The Cougars have said precious little about the matchup this week, foregoing any real media availability sessions aside from a news conference after they walloped Evansville 96-55 Tuesday night at the Marriott Center.
But there’s no doubt that this one means more; BYU leads the all-time series 134-129 and has won five of the last six and 12 of the last 16. Utes coach Craig Smith has never defeated BYU — at Utah or at his previous stop, Utah State.
“This Utah team is a great team,” Pope said after the Evansville game. “You know, (Utah center) Branden Carlson is an all-Pac-12 vet. Like, he is just not becoming one, he’s been one for a long time.”
Carlson did not play in Utah’s 88-86 win over Southern Utah on Tuesday due to an undisclosed injury, and Smith said after the game it was “just too early to tell” whether the 7-footer would be available against BYU.
When Smith met with reporters Friday morning before practice, he said Carlson’s status for Saturday afternoon was still to be determined.
The Cougars will be without post player Fousseyni Traore (hamstring injury), which could be a considerable factor if Carlson can go. Utah is the tallest team in the country; lack of size is one of BYU’s weaknesses, masked so far by outstanding 3-point shooting and dogged offensive rebounding.
“They got incredible size. They can really shoot the ball. Craig does an unbelievable job coaching them in a great arena. So it is like, in-state games, man, they are magic,” Pope said. “So you just look forward to them. … You know it is going to be super, super competitive. That’s why in-state games are special. They are fun for the fans.”
Along with featuring former BYU guard Hunter Erickson (by way of Salt Lake Community College) and one-time BYU signee Jake Wahlin, Utah also has 7-foot-1 Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering and 6-8 center Keba Keita, who is a beast inside and had 23 points and eight rebounds against SUU.
“Every game is so huge for us right now and we love it, can’t wait to get to it,” Pope said. “We got a lot of confidence in our guys. We have a lot of confidence in our approach, so let’s go.”
The Cougars were hoping to get UC Irvine transfer Dawson Baker ready for the rivalry game, but the guard’s return suffered a setback last week and now the hope is that he’s ready for the Cougs’ Big 12 opener against Cincinnati on Jan. 6.
Carlson, Erickson, Keita and Wahlin are the only Utes who played high school basketball in Utah. BYU’s roster includes Utahns Trey Stewart (American Fork), Richie Saunders (Riverton/Wasatch Academy), Spencer Johnson (American Fork/SLCC), Trevin Knell (Woods Cross), Dallin Hall (Fremont) and walk-on Jared McGregor (Westlake).
“It is super fun to play in-state rivals, against guys you know, that you kinda grew up with,” Knell said. “Branden Carlson was my AAU teammate, so I will be texting him later this week to kinda spice some things up.
“But just with a lot of stuff that has been going on, this game is going to be personal,” Knell said. “I love (the) Deion Sanders thing, like, ‘they kinda like to make things personal.’ So it is going to be a fun game and I feel like we are going to be ready.”