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Utes, Cougars take center stage for big games Saturday against ’Cats, Zags

Big game weekend is upon us.

No. 13 Utah hosts No. 7 Arizona in a Pac-12 top-drawer, top gun show in the Huntsman Center Saturday.

Meanwhile, BYU is in Spokane to play No. 3 Gonzaga in the Kennel in what amounts to BYU’s next to the last gasp multimedia, spreadsheet presentation arguing its case to be in the NCAA tournament.

How huge is the home court for Utah in this matchup? It may be everything, The Utes are perfect at home this season.

The Cougars will try to topple the Zags in what may be a near impossible task. BYU defeated Gonzaga 73-65 in Provo a year ago, but has never defeated Gonzaga in Spokane. It might as well be Rupp Arena in Lexington for BYU.

Utah will have its work cut out, but I’d pick the Utes in this matchup in Salt Lake City for myriad reasons. Arizona will have to make a lot of shots from beyond the arc to defeat the Utes. I’d wager on a big game night. The Huntsman Center is a tougher place to play than any other venue in the league, and Utah’s defense is intense enough, good enough and pesky enough to throw off the Wildcats and disrupt the rhythm Sean Miller enjoys.

BYU has played better defense during its five-game win streak, and that will definitely increase the probabilities. The Cougar recipe is the same, however, they live and die by the 3-point shot. If BYU makes 14 from distance, they will win. History says that in the Kennel, BYU’s 3-point artistry usually turns into a Crayon scribble.

While the Utes put on an impressive display of shot-blocking in thumbing ASU on Thursday, it will be Utah’s perimeter defense and rebounding that undoes Arizona. The Utes must get effective post touches and be on target on the kickouts to the outside. Utah’s height, screen/pick offense is crucial in getting buckets in its No. 6 ranked accuracy from the field.

The Cougars will have their hands full with potential league MVP guard Kevin Pangos on the outside, but it is BYU’s weakness inside the paint that is scary. Gonzaga ranks No. 1 in the nation in field goal percentage (.527) with 7-footer Przemek Karnowski and 6-11 forward Kyle Wiltjer. It is Wiltjer who has been on a tear lately, scoring 45 points against Pacific. Gonzaga has a story book inside-out attack, and the Cougars may not have enough fouls to give to slow it down.

Utah’s Delon Wright will be the game MVP. His ability to make plays on both ends of the court and take control with the shot clock winding down will prove the difference — if Utah’s defense holds true.

BYU is getting better play from a post rotation that includes Corbin Kaufusi, Ryan Andrus, Isaac Nielson and Luke Worthington. But hacking it up to make stops will only go so far. The Zag passing game amongst its big men is impressive and exposes weaknesses quickly.

The most vulnerable part of Utah in a potential loss in this matchup is if its outside shooters go cold for long periods of time. This will be a defensive battle and every possession will count. If Utah falls behind, it will need the 3-ball to come in a flurry. Well-timed treys will also cement a close lead in the final minutes.

Tyler Haws, Chase Fischer, Skyler Halford and Anson Winder are all capable of going off on Gonzaga. If BYU can get the Zags out of a halfcourt game and turn it into a track meet, the Cougars will be in their comfort zone. Gonzaga doesn’t mind running, but BYU uses the uptempo as part of its defense to tire out opponents.

Gonzaga matches up far better with Utah and Arizona than BYU does to any of those three. If Arizona lost to ASU, Oregon State and UNLV, Utah has plenty of reasons to come out on top. If BYU were to defeat Gonzaga, it would help the Pac-12 because right now the Zags are a No. 1 seed in the West and Arizona is a two.

My guess?

Utah defeats Arizona 66-63.

Gonzaga beats BYU 76-69.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.