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Why the BYU-Utah basketball rivalry still matters

When the two teams met a year ago, BYU coach Mark Pope got his first taste of the rivalry game as a head coach, and quickly found out the basketball rivalry game lived up to its reputation

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Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) celebrates a game-tying shot with teammates as Utah and BYU play in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime, and will square off again Saturday night in Provo.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It certainly doesn’t grab as much attention or possess the cachet as the BYU-Utah football rivalry, but the BYU-Utah basketball rivalry is still a big deal. 

The Utes (2-0) and Cougars (5-2) reminded everyone of that fact last year.  

When they met a year ago at the Huntsman Center, in BYU coach Mark Pope’s first rivalry game as a head coach and Yoeli Childs’ first game of the season after serving a nine-game NCAA suspension, the young Utes rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit and stunned the Cougars 102-95 in overtime. 

And for good measure, there was some controversy and some postgame fireworks. More on that later.

The two programs renew their rivalry once again Saturday (4 p.m. MST, BYUtv) at the Marriott Center. 

BYU senior Matt Haarms was playing for Purdue last season but even he comprehends the magnitude of this game. 

“I understand that they hate us and we hate them. It’s that easy. They’re going to come in and try to take your head off on every single play,” he said. “I come from a place where we have a big rivalry — Indiana-Purdue. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in the country also. I understand how that works.” 

Guard Alex Barcello remembers that painful setback in Salt Lake City. 

“They got us last year at their place. It’s a huge rivalry. These in-state games are always tough, especially with the Utes,” he said. “We’ve got to come in ready to battle. We’ve got to come in with the mindset that it’s going to be a war. We’ve got to be tough from the tip to the final buzzer.” 

Last year, the two teams got into some heated altercations. In the final minutes, BYU guard Jake Toolson got involved in a verbal exchange with Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. 

Then, as the two teams went through the handshake line, Pope and Krystkowiak touched hands just briefly as they passed each other. 

“It’s hard to shake a hand when you lose a game. I’ve been on that end and it is frustrating. I know Mark is a standup guy and there is nothing to it. There is a lot of emotion in the ball game. It’s all right. I understand that and the nature of it.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak

“It’s hard to shake a hand when you lose a game,” Krystkowiak said in his postgame interview. “I’ve been on that end and it is frustrating. I know Mark is a standup guy and there is nothing to it. There is a lot of emotion in the ball game. It’s all right. I understand that and the nature of it.”

After the handshake line was over, Utah’s director of basketball operations, Chris Jones, and Pope, exchanged words and had to be separated. Jones is the father of Ute guard Rylan Jones, who scored 25 points and had six assists against BYU.

When asked about the incident after the game, Pope said, “I don’t really have much to say about that. When we go through the lines, coaches should have enough restraint not to get into it with players.”

In a game that saw the Utes go to the free-throw line 31 times compared to 17 trips for the Cougars, Pope offered sarcastic words when asked after the game about the officiating. 

“I thought the officials were amazing. That’s probably the best crew that’s ever stepped foot on the planet,” he said. “And, I’ll tell you this — a really brave and courageous crew. That crew, I would take them every single game. They’re amazing.”

Oh, and there’s the decision by forward Caleb Lohner, who originally signed with Utah last November then sought, and received a release from the school and later signed with BYU. 

That’s to say nothing about Krystkowiak’s decision to cancel the 2016 game between the two programs, marking the first time they didn’t play in a season since 1944. 

Yeah, this is still quite a rivalry, which dates back to 1909. The two programs have played 260 times with BYU leading the all-time series 131-129. The Cougars have won 13 the last 18 meetings.

“When there’s an in-state rivalry, there’s always a little extra juice coming into the game,” said senior guard Brandon Averette, a senior grad transfer from Utah Valley University, “because of past history and how much you want to win those games.”  

According to the kenpom.com rankings, Utah is No. 57 and BYU checks in at No. 92. 

While the Cougars are hosting this game, it won’t benefit from having thousands of screaming fans cheering them on due to the pandemic. 

“We’ve got to learn that home-court advantage really isn’t as big as it is in a normal year,” Haarms said. “We can’t just trust our fans to get us back into it. We have that fake crowd noise but we don’t have that big 10,000-15,000-strong crowd. We’ve got to get ourselves ready for games.”

The Cougars got off to a dreadful start against Boise State last Wednesday, trailing 14-0 more eight minutes into the game. 

While fans won’t be there Saturday, expect emotions to run high. 

Cougars, Utes on the air

Utah (2-0) at BYU (5-2)

Saturday, 4 p.m. MST

Marriott Center


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM