Four of No. 18 BYU’s first five opponents this season played in the NCAA Tournament last year.
Now the Cougars (5-0) are bracing for their rivals when they visit Utah Saturday (7:30 p.m., MST, Pac-12 Network) at the Huntsman Center.
It’s BYU’s first true road game of the season.
The Utes (5-0) didn’t go to the Big Dance last year, but armed with a fresh start and a perfect record under a new coach, they’re confident and looking to knock off a ranked opponent.
First-year Utah coach Craig Smith led his team to a Sunshine Slam championship in Florida last week.
“It’s going to be everything you want in an in-state game. Craig’s a great coach. They have a great team, a really veteran team. This is a big game,” said BYU coach Mark Pope.
“They’re undefeated and they’ve started out the season great. They’ve played great basketball. They just won (the Sunshine Slam). Proud tradition. It’s going to be awesome. These in-state games are really special.”
Pope praised Smith, who previously coached at Utah State.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for him. I think he’s a great coach,” Pope said. “He’s obviously had a great career. He makes his guys better. He’s a tough competitor … He’s going to do a great job at Utah. Utah is really lucky to have him.”
The Utes’ leading scorer is 7-foot center Branden Carlson, who is averaging 15.4 points per game, and David Jenkins, Jr., a UNLV transfer, averages 14.6 points.
Both Gach, who left the Utes two years ago before returning this season, averages 10.
Guard Marco Anthony averages a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game and guard Rollie Worster averages a team-high 4 assists per game.
Both Anthony and Worster followed Smith from USU to Utah.
The last time the Cougars visited the Huntsman Center, in December, 2019, they built a 16-point second-half lead only to watch Utah come storming back and force overtime.
In OT, the Utes earned a 102-95 victory in Yoeli Childs’ first game of that season after sitting out for the first nine because of an NCAA suspension.
Childs scored 29 points before being sidelined due to an injury.
A year ago in Provo, in front of a near-empty Marriott Center due to COVID-19, BYU dominated the boards and beat Utah 82-64.
Senior transfer Te’Jon Lucas will be playing in his first Cougar-Ute hoops game Saturday. He did get his first taste of the rivalry when he attended the Cougars’ 26-17 win over the Utes in football at LaVell Edwards Stadium in September.
“Just going to the football game, it shows you the impact and how dedicated each fan base is,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to being out there to play in it.”
Lucas scored a team-high 18 points and dished out seven assists and had zero turnovers in BYU’s 81-64 win over Texas Southern on Wednesday.
Four other Cougars also scored in double figures — Fousseyni Traore (a career-high 13), Alex Barcello (12), Gavin Baxter (11) and Gideon George (10).
Barcello made just 3 of 11 shots from the floor while George, who made just 1 of 8 3-point attempts, grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.
As a team, BYU shot just 39%. The Cougars will need to shoot much better against the Utes.
BYU’s best performance of the season came against a Pac-12 foe on Nov. 16, when it pounded then-No. 12 Oregon 81-49 at the Moda Center in Portland.
“I may have overestimated how much I wanted to learn about my team early in the season,” Pope said.
But he likes the way his team competes, and he’s eager for the challenge Saturday against Utah at the Huntsman Center.
“We’re going to go fight, man,” Pope said. “We’ve got a team that wants to go fight.”