PROVO — Around the Marriott Center, it feels a lot like old times.

Sure, Jimmer Fredette is gone — though he returns to Utah tonight when his Sacramento Kings face the Jazz — and BYU is competing in the West Coast Conference instead of the Mountain West Conference.

But as No. 21 Saint Mary's invades Provo tonight (7 p.m., MST, ESPNU), the scenario is a familiar one for the Cougars — it's a showdown with conference championship implications, and a sellout crowd of 22,700 is expected to be on hand.

Just some of the names have changed.

Forward Noah Hartsock said the circumstances leading up to this game are reminiscent of contests in recent years against former MWC rivals New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State. "I know the fans are going to be excited to be able to come to this type of game once again," Hartsock said.

"If the players look forward to this challenge as much as the coaches, we're going to have a great night," said coach Dave Rose. "Our players, this is why they come (to BYU), to play in front of a full house, and to play a nationally ranked team."

BYU knows it needs to emerge victorious to remain in the WCC race. Also, the Cougars are sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

On top of that, BYU (18-5, 6-2) is looking to avenge a humbling 98-82 loss to the Gaels (20-2, 9-0) in Moraga, Calif., nearly one month ago.

"It's one of those games that we need to win," said Hartsock. "They really manhandled us in the last game. It's a big opportunity for us to show how we've improved over the last eight or nine games we've played."

No wonder students built a tent city outside the Marriott Center this week in anticipation of this matchup.

"It's going to be a dogfight the whole game," said forward Brandon Davies.

BYU is confident, coming off a dramatic 70-68 road victory at Virginia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference last Wednesday.

Hartsock said beating the Hokies "really helped us just in our mindset that we can go on the road and beat good teams, even in a close game like that. Sometimes we've struggled in close games with Utah State and Baylor. These are the games that we can win and need to win."

"It was a great win," said guard Brock Zylstra, who drained the game-winning 3-pointer with 26.5 seconds remaining. "We all knew that BYU was 0-8 against ACC opponents on the road (going into that game). ... It meant a lot to us. It was good for us to get started in these next couple of games to get that winning feeling."

Next Thursday, the Cougars host perennial WCC power Gonzaga.

"They're big games," Zylstra said of this upcoming stretch. "Saint Mary's is in the top 25. We all remember what happened to us down there in California and the feelings we had walking out of that arena, not feeling the greatest. This game is big for us. We need to get this win and fix the things we didn't do as well down there."

With Saint Mary's and Gonzaga coming to town, there's plenty at stake, including a shot at the regular-season conference championship.

"We know what's on the line," Hartsock said. "(The Gaels are) two games ahead of us right now. We've got to take care of them and do our best the rest of (WCC play). It kind of has that feeling right now. This is a big game for us, especially the change of conferences to a conference that hasn't gotten a lot of bids to the NCAA Tournament. We hold our own destiny. We've got to make sure we win the games we need to win."

In the first meeting — it was BYU's inaugural WCC conference game — Saint Mary's was in control most of the way.

"They really sped us up. We got impatient offensively," Rose recalled. "I think we're a lot better. I hope we are. But we'll see. This team is really tough defensively. They don't get a lot of credit for how tough of a team this is. They challenge every shot, they rebound really well and they compete really hard at the rim."

The Gaels are led by point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who had 18 points and 12 assists against the Cougars.

"They are a great team," Zylstra said. "Dellavedova is one of the best point guards in the nation with being able to dissect a defense."

Rose called Dellavedova "a great floor leader," adding that "his ability to score is really underrated."

In Moraga, forward Rob Jones scored 24 points and Stephen Holt chipped in 21.

With Fredette's return to Utah conflicting with tonight's game, some BYU fans are conflicted: Support the Cougars or support Jimmer?

"No offense to Jimmer, but I hope all the fans come down here to watch us," Zylstra said with a smile. "It will be good for people to support him up there as well. We hope he does well, but we hope that the fans come down for us."

NOTES: Rose said he is not expecting injured forward Stephen Rogers (knee) to play tonight. … The Cougars have made just 9 of their last 60 3-point attempts. But in the final minutes of the second half at Virginia Tech, they knocked down 4-of-9. … Saint Mary's defeated Loyola Marymount, 71-64, in Los Angeles last Thursday.

Saturday's hoops

St. Mary's at BYU, 7 p.m.

San Jose St. at Utah S., 7 p.m.

Weber St. at Idaho St., 7 p.m.

S. Dakota at S. Utah, 7:30 p.m.

NJIT at Utah Valley, 7 p.m.

Utah at USC, 9 p.m.Cougars on the air

No. 21 Saint Mary's (20-2, 9-0) at BYU (18-5, 6-2)

Today, 7 p.m., MST

Marriott Center

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FMCougars on the air

No. 21 Saint Mary's (20-2, 9-0) at BYU (18-5, 6-2)

Today, 7 p.m., MST

Marriott Center

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FMCougars on the air

No. 21 Saint Mary's (20-2, 9-0) at BYU (18-5, 6-2)

Today, 7 p.m., MST

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Marriott Center

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

email: jeffc@desnews.com