Utah (7-2) at BYU (8-2)
Saturday, 9 p.m. MST Marriott Center
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — Due to the cancellation of last year’s BYU-Utah basketball game, it’s been three years since the Utes have played the Cougars here.
The longstanding rivalry renews Saturday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2) when the two programs clash at the Marriott Center.
What has BYU coach Dave Rose told his players about this particular matchup and what it means to be playing this game again?
“We haven’t really spent much about the history of the series. It’s the 258th game in a series that’s been going on for a long time,” Rose said. “We’ve spent a lot of time preparing for our opponent. That’s probably about it. Some of our guys have a pretty good idea of the last seven or eight years in the series because they’ve grown up in the state."
Though the series ended up taking only a one-year hiatus, very few players on either side have played in the rivalry game.
“It’s different. It’s really different. When you consider the fact that Utah is starting four seniors and five transfers in the starting lineup and none of them have played in a BYU-Utah game. That’s pretty interesting,” Rose said. “On our side, we’ve got two guys that have played in it. I’ve been involved in close to 40 games in the series, which is a small piece of what’s been going on here for 100 years. It feels pretty normal. When we get in here (Saturday), we’ll feel a big difference because it will be one of those games where there’s a lot of excitement and hype in the building. Hopefully, our guys will be ready to execute in that situation.”
The two BYU players with rivalry game experience are forward Luke Worthington and guard Zac Seljaas.
“It’s kind of weird that’s we’re the only ones that have played against them in this rivalry,” Seljaas said. “It’s always a fun atmosphere. It’s always a fun game.”
The Cougars (8-2) have won five consecutive games overall but have dropped three in a row to the Utes (7-2).
BYU knows that Utah offers a formidable challenge with its experience, size and depth.
Forward David Collette averages a team-high 13.7 points per game while guard Justin Bibbins averages 11.3.
“Their experience on the floor, with Bibbins, a fifth-year senior, and their balance offensively and their ability to shoot the 3 is really impressive,” Rose said. “Their post guys have always been good. This group is no different. They bring those young guys off the bench that are really talented. I really like their balance. They score inside and they score outside. They’re patient and they convert early in transition, which is a little bit new for them. They’re really good at executing late in the clock. It’s a pretty good team.”
“They’re a solid team,” Worthington said. “Watching them, they have an inside presence and they play well with their guard play. A lot of the things they do well play into what we are good at so we’ll be able to take advantage of different situations defensively and offensively as well."
The Cougars will be without three injured players — forwards Dalton Nixon, Ryan Andrus and Braiden Shaw, which hurt BYU in the post against Utah’s big front line.
For the Cougars, Saturday’s game marks it last chance to record a quality non-conference win.
“It’s a Power 5 school,” Rose said. “Anytime you get that on our schedule, in our situation, it is a good opportunity game. You can look at it that way.”
Certainly, BYU fans also look at this game as a chance to express their feelings about the rivalry game, and their feeling toward Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak, who decided to cancel last year’s contest.
“I think our students are excited. Our fans are excited. It’s becoming a once-in-every-three-or-four years (event) that you get an opportunity to see this game in our arena,” Rose said. “If that’s the case, hopefully fans take advantage of it.”
Rose said feelings haven’t changed in terms of how the players and coaches view the rivalry after not playing the game a year ago.
“I really believe that players nowadays do a really good job of focusing on things they can control. It really didn’t have anything to do with any of these guys,” he said. “Maybe the coaching staffs are pretty familiar with the situation and the fact that the series was postponed or canceled is really not my issue. The issue is that I had a game to be returned last year that wasn’t returned. That was the toughest thing.”
For Seljaas, the approach to the game is the same as usual.
“It’s the same for the fans. They’re excited for it, they’re ready for it,” he said. “For us, it’s just the same. We’re playing Utah. It’s a rivalry game and it always will be. But it’s just another game. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”