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Utes vs. Aggies isn't a hoops rivalry, it's an arrangement

SALT LAKE CITY — The message wasn’t meant to be insulting, but several years ago, after the Utes had been admitted to the Pac-12, athletics director Chris Hill wondered aloud about playing Utah State annually in basketball. He rhetorically asked how many Pac-12 teams play road games against Mountain West opponents on an annual basis.

Up in Cache Valley, Stew Morrill was on slow burn. He was winning 20-plus games most years, yet hearing that a school the Aggies had been meeting since 1909 wasn’t being neighborly. Playing at the Huntsman Center was OK with the Utes. But home-and-home?

The Aggies could go make cheese.

So the rivalry went into sleep mode.

For the first time since 2010, the teams met, as part of Saturday’s inaugural Beehive Classic basketball tournament. The game was played at Vivint Arena, not entirely a neutral site, but more so than the Huntsman Center. It was the first neutral site contest in the teams’ 224-game history. Utah built its lead to 21 early and won by 10.

The Beehive Classic is the brainchild of the Larry H. Miller family and a couple of Jazz executives who recall the state’s college hoops heyday. Into the 1990s, local teams often played twice in a season, home-and-home. Travel was cheap and fan appeal high.

But over time, interest in college basketball and its rivalries waned. Morrill kept doing his thing, piling up strong seasons in his conference, and Rick Majerus, well, you know. He was king of the hill — or at least king on the hill. Later came other coaches at both schools, but the series never revived until now.

If the local colleges were planning on selling this tournament as nationally noted basketball, they chose the wrong year. Nobody is threatening to break into the rankings. The Aggies are 5-6 after being picked to finish seventh in the Mountain West. At 7-2, Utah is projected to finish in the same spot in the Pac-12. So Saturday’s game didn’t really have a rivalry feel. Few fans showed up for tipoff. The official box score didn’t list attendance figures for a reason.

Ticket prices were relatively high, but still.

People pay high prices to see the Jazz, and they’re averaging 17,322 attendance.

“When you win a game like this, it obviously sounds like a heck of an idea,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It’s not easy. Early in the game, fans weren’t quite here but as evening went on they rolled in.”

While it’s true that for local players such as Utah’s David Collette, it may have had special meaning — though he hastened beforehand to deny it. Regardless, he and fellow Utahns Parker Van Dyke and Tyler Rawson combined for 39 points.

Aggie coach Tim Duryea claimed it’s still a rivalry game.

“It had a different feel,” Duryea said. “I think it’s a great event. Great venue. I hope they keep it going, but I was a little disappointed in the crowd at the start of the game. I just think it’s really good basketball for fans in-state. It’s a special game, and we didn’t start the way we wanted to start.”

That, of course, is what they’re supposed to say. But Krystkowiak was a little closer to the truth.

It’s fine if you win.

In honesty, you can’t take a six-season, seven-year break and call it a rivalry. Not even after one coach (Duryea) once called out the other (Krystkowiak) for allegedly poaching his players (Collette).

“Anything that happened two or three years ago is really hard to remember,” Duryea said this week, regarding Collette’s transfer.

Maybe someday college hoops in Utah will feel like 1979 again — a year in which all four schools made the NCAA field, despite just 40 teams being invited. The Utes and Aggies met twice that year, each winning one. They played to packed houses and intense coverage. But things change. Now a Utah-USU game is a novelty. It took the initiative of Jazz executives Steve Starks and Jim Olson to get the teams together, after athletics directors failed.

But for the time being, Utah-USU isn’t a rivalry, it’s an arrangement.

If Collette didn’t think the game was special, you wouldn’t know it from the box score. He and fellow Utahns Van Dyke and Rawson scored 27 of the Utes’ first 37 points, leading to the 21-point advantage. That narrative didn’t play out with the Aggies. Just one of the four Utahns on USU’s roster (Sam Merrill) played.

In the end, it wasn’t a grudge match so much as a hard-fought non-conference season game. Is the Beehive Classic a throwback to long ago? Or a gimmick no one cares about? For now, the Utes will settle for a win over someone they used to know.