It's the opening game of a 16-game WAC basketball schedule for BYU, and already it's a big one. Cougars (9-1) vs. Miners (10-1), UTEP Special Events Center, 7:30 tonight, live on Channel 5.

With Utah - everyone's favorite to repeat as league champs - struggling of late, suddenly the chase has become a race."There's about four or five teams that still have a legitimate chance," said BYU coach Roger Reid, "and our team is one of those."

UTEP is another. The Miners were a question mark entering this season, due to the loss of two of their top three scorers, but leading scorer Marlon Maxey was supposed to be healthy and senior guard Prince Stewart was back from a year spent getting his grades up to par.

Four games into the season, however, Maxey was injured again, taking his 17 points a game with him. In his absence, the other players have improved. "Sometimes guys play better when something like this happens," Reid said. "Evidently, the other guys think they can play, too."

One player who has stepped up is center David Van Dyke, a 6-foot-9 senior who had a sensational freshman season, then spent the last two years giving people reason to ask "Where'd he go?" This year, Van Dyke is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds a game, while shooting 61 percent from the field. He's a great shot-blocker, but he also tends to attract whistles - he's fouled out of five games already.

The other guy who has made a difference in this team is Eddie Rivera, a 5-foot-10 playmaker out of Puerto Rico by way of New York City and Central Florida Community College in Ocala, Fla. A JC All-American last season, Rivera was expected to compete with Stewart and Gym Bice for the point guard spot.

Instead, Rivera is the only Miner to start all 11 games and leads the team in assists. With Stewart, who came within three of matching Tim Hardaway's all-time UTEP assist record two years ago, at the other guard spot, UTEP essentially plays a two point-guard lineup.

For BYU, the best part about this trip may be its brevity. Instead of the usual killer visit to UTEP on Thursday and New Mexico on Saturday, the Cougs fly back to Provo on Friday morning, then play Colorado State in the Marriott Center on Saturday night. Reid said the change is a result of coaches complaining about having to do UTEP-New Mexico and BYU-Utah killer weekend trips, although Reid claims he doesn't get involved in such concerns.

"To me, it's not that big a deal," Reid said. "People make big things out of things that aren't that big."

Haskins, on the other hand, thinks it is a big deal. "Is it an advantage for those teams not to play us both the same week? No question about it."

Scheduling questions aside, this game means a lot to both teams, and not just in the WAC title chase. The winner stands a good chance of sneaking into the Top 25 next week, especially if it knocks off its Saturday night foe. Reid doesn't consider that a goal for his team, but he does admit to being a little confused by the way the polls work. The Cougars have lurked six or seven spots back of the No. 25 team in the nation for the past few weeks, among "Others receiving votes."

"I guess they (the voters) don't know much about us and don't think we're any good," Reid said. Then, referring to the USA Today/CNN coaches poll, Reid added, "Coaches are funny. They take care of people in their area and their league, and I'm not sure coaches in our league want us to win."